Two Chicago High-Rise Fires Spur Code Reassessment
Last month, Chicago was the setting of yet another life-safety disaster, as six office workers died in a downtown high-rise fire. This comes in the same year as a fatal porch collapse in the city's Lincoln Park neighborhood that resulted in 13 deaths and a fatal nightclub incident south of downtown in which more than 20 were trampled to death.
Last month, Chicago was the setting of yet another life-safety disaster, as six office workers died in a downtown high-rise fire. This comes in the same year as a fatal porch collapse in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood that resulted in 13 deaths and a fatal nightclub incident south of downtown in which more than 20 were trampled to death.
The fire occurred at a 35-story, Cook County-owned building with no sprinkler system. The fire, which was suspected to have resulted from a malfunction in an electrical line or fixture, broke out on the 12th floor of the building. As workers trying to escape via the building’s eastern stairwell approached the 12th floor, they were reportedly ordered by firefighters to go back up the stairs. Workers, however, were not able to exit the stairwell until they reached the 27th floor, and six were found dead in the stairwell at the 22nd floor.
Earlier this month, the Chicago City Council passed a new measure that will require high-rises to unlock stairwell doors or employ devices that would do so automatically in the event of an emergency. An auto-unlock system would let firefighters unlock stairwell doors from a control panel or would automatically unlock doors when an alarm sounds. According to the Chicago Tribune , the cost of such a system could range from $1,000 to $5,000 per door.
Chicago’s mayor Richard M. Daley also voiced support for a proposal from Alderman Edward Burke (12th Ward) that would make sprinklers mandatory in all high-rises. The county-owned building was constructed in the early 1960s, and the current code required sprinklers in only high-rises constructed in 1975 or after. The council plans to consider this proposal.
Tom Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, is encouraged by this news. “To me, fire sprinklers are the answer,” Lia said. “If they would have had sprinklers in there, one or two heads would have put the fire out or controlled it, the firemen would have come in with maybe a pump can… and everyone’s back in service; no one’s injured, no one’s killed.”
According to Lia, in 1999, a study by the Chicago High-Rise Commission determined that there were between 800 and 900 buildings of 85 ft. or higher in the city of Chicago that were not sprinklered.
Jerry Schultz, P.E., president and owner of Fire Protection International, echoed Lia’s thoughts. “Should there be a code change?” he asked. “I would like to see one. I think it’s important that we start recognizing the benefit of automatic sprinklers in high-rise buildings.”
He also pointed out that Chicago is behind other major U.S. cities when it comes to safety in older buildings. “In terms of new construction, I think Chicago is as competitive as others,” he said. “In terms of existing structures, I think it’s lacking.”
Another recent incident revealed that sprinklers and unlocked doors aren’t the only things lacking in some Chicago high-rises. A second fire, which occurred earlier this month—also in a downtown high-rise—happened in a building that didn’t have a fire alarm. No one was killed in the incident, which spurred the chairman of the City Council’s Building’s Committee to call for fire alarms to be installed in high-rises. According to the city’s fire department, most buildings constructed before 1975 weren’t required to have fire alarms installed and also aren’t required to retrofit them in.
Ken Schwartz, P.E., fire protection engineer, chief technology officer for Schirmer Engineering, Deerfield, Ill., indicated that his firm assisted Chicago’s Dept. of Construction and Permits with proposed changes to the city’s fire code. Seven ordinances, covering topics such as voice communication systems, sprinkler requirements and life safety evaluation for buildings without sprinklers, have been submitted to City Council for review. Schwartz expects the council to make final decisions on the ordinances by next spring.