Statewide residential fire sprinkler effort derailed in Illinois

'Misinformation' campaign in Chicago leads to withdrawal of proposal, a sprinkler advocate says
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Monday, August 12, 2013

ORLAND PARK, Ill.—Illinois this summer appeared poised to become the third state in the nation to adopt residential sprinkler requirements statewide, with the Illinois State Fire Marshal recommending the state’s first update of its fire code in 11 years.

But facing strong opposition from Chicago city officials, homebuilders’ and realtors’ groups, Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis on Aug. 2 withdrew his proposal to update the state fire code, NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, from the 2000 edition to the 2012 edition. The updated code would have required, among other changes, that all new one- and two-family homes have fire sprinklers.

Matkaitis canceled an Aug. 6 public hearing on the issue and told supporters in an email communication that he plans to “regroup and meet with stakeholders before once again moving forward.” He added: “We will not give up on our goal to provide the highest level of fire safety to Illinois residents and first responders.”

The proposal encountered strong resistance from the city of Chicago because of concerns about how the update would impact existing high-rise apartment buildings. However, Tom Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board (NIFSAB), based here, said that’s because opponents spread “misinformation” about the code requirements and exaggerated the cost of retrofitting a high-rise.

“I think it’s shameful elected officials aren’t supporting their own fire marshal and falling victim to the special interest, very powerful building owners and very powerful realtors’ associations and the condo-management companies that are fighting this,” Lia told Security Systems News. “… We support the fire marshal, who [has a] strong sense of right.”

Proponents of the change in Illinois included the NIFSAB, the National Fire Protection Association, firefighters and the Illinois Electronic Security Association (IESA).

Kevin Lehan, IESA executive director, said the organization sent a letter to the Illinois General Assembly in June expressing its support of the adoption of the 2012 version of NFPA 101. “We believe this is a life safety issue. That’s what we are in the business of doing,” Lehan told SSN.

The proposed update—which had been slated to come before the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules on Aug. 13—would have made Illinois the third state in the nation to require home sprinklers statewide. California and Maryland are the only two states to already have such a mandate.

But Chicago aldermen, homebuilders and realtors opposed the change, saying the latest version would require sprinklers in residential high-rises built before 1975 and be too costly, perhaps displacing low-income residents, according to news reports.

They got their facts wrong, Lia said. For example, he said the 2000 edition of NFPA 101 already requires fire sprinklers in existing residential high-rises.

“Upgrading to the 2012 edition of the [Life Safety Code] does not change the requirements for fire sprinklers in high-rises. In fact, the proposed rule adds some leeway for building owners by allowing fire sprinklers to be installed over the course of 12 years,” the NIFSAB said in a news release on the issue.

Lia told SSN that the problem is that instead of following state regulations, Chicago has passed its own fire safety ordinance, which it said takes precedence over state requirements. Under that ordinance, buildings must pass a Life Safety Evaluation (LSE) in which sprinklers aren’t required if the structures have other safety features such as fire doors, fire alarms and upgraded elevators, according a recent Chicago Tribune story.

At least one alderman has defended Chicago’s fire code as one of the toughest in the country, but Lia called it “a homemade code.”

He said, “That code that they developed does not follow any national code, whether it’s the NFPA or the ICC [International Code Council] code. So I think they’re giving people a false sense of security [when they say a building has passed the LSE].”

He cited as an example a high-rise building in Chicago that had a fire on Dec. 10, 2009, in which an elderly woman died. The building had previously passed the LSE, he said.

Lia also said opponents exaggerated cost estimates to retrofit older high-rises because he said most existing buildings already have the basic water infrastructure in place to add sprinklers. Opponents said it would cost $35,000 to $50,000 to retrofit a condo space “but no one has been able to find any proof or substantiation” for those figures, he said.

After talking to contractors and unions, proponents estimate the cost at about one-third of what opponents projected, he said.

And if the federal Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act is passed as hoped by this Congress, building owners would get stronger tax incentives to retrofit their buildings, he noted.

Lia recently won an NFPA award for his work promoting home fire sprinklers. Since he joined the NIFSAB in 1999, the number of Illinois communities requiring residential sprinklers grew from three to 91 today. Updating the state fire code would have meant that instead of going town by town, all state municipalities would be protected, he said.