Proposed Bill Strips Some Power From State Fire Marshall

After last summer's bruising battle over fire sprinklers in Chicago high rises, opponents are embarking on a new tactic: they are attempting to strip the Illinois State Fire Marshal of his authority to write new rules.

Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis pushed a change last June, which would have mandated installation of sprinklers in older existing residential highrises, and all new single family homes in Illinois. But condo boards and homebuilders howled in protest. The fire and sprinkler community cried foul, saying opponents had engaged in a massive campaign of misinformation, using inflated numbers about what new sprinkler systems would cost. But the damage was done, and with little political support, Matkaitis eventually withdrew the proposal.

Now, Illinois State Representative Sarah Feigenholtz, of the condo intensive 12th District on Chicago's north side, is proposing legislation which strips Matkaitis of any authority to impose such rules. A draft of her proposed bill would set up a 21 member advisory committee which would advise the General Assembly, and would have sole authority to impose any sprinkler rules.

The draft specifically states, "The Office of the State Fire Marshal may not adopt rules requiring the installation of fire sprinkler systems in any structure."

Behind the scenes, firefighting and sprinkler trade groups have been engaging in a rapid back and forth about the proposed legislation, attempting to blunt language which could effectively block any new mandates for sprinkler systems. Feigenholtz has not formally introduced the actual measure, but is expected to do so next week.

"When you're talking about sprinklers, you're talking about protecting people," said Steven Iovenelli, the Franklin Park fire chief who serves as chairman of the Illinois Fire Services Association. "You're talking about saving lives."

Iovenelli echoed the sentiments of many in the firefighting community, that in a world of new construction techniques, sprinkler systems only make sense. And that horror stories of explosive costs are grossly overblown.

"We want to make sure that however this bill gets put together, it's done in the interest of the people it protects," he said.

Matkaitis did not respond to requests for comment on the proposed new legislation which would limit his authority. Previously, he had maintained that the state code already mandates installation of sprinklers in existing residential high rises. Chicago refuses to follow the state code, citing home rule authority, and maintaining local fire rules provide adequate safety.

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