Early this morning, a fatal fire at the 44-story building at 260 East Chestnut Street in Chicago claimed the life of one individual, injuring at least 12, including five of the hundreds of firefighters present.
The tragic event needlessly repeats a January 2002 fire in the same building that also claimed one individual’s life and injured 11, including eight firefighter injuries.
This recurrence should not have happened and surely calls into question the effectiveness of the “minimum requirements” of the City of Chicago’s Life Safety Evaluation (LSE).
Had fire sprinklers been installed, residents would have had the additional time needed to safely escape the building and the fire would not have grown to flashover — the temperature at which everything in the room combusts.
According to Tom Lia, executive director for the nonprofit Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, “The current Chicago Life Safety Evaluation program falls well short of the national standard of safety, NFPA 101: Life Safety Code,” which is the code referenced by the James Lee Witt Report following the deadly Cook County Administration Building high-rise fire of 2003.
NFPA 101 requires fire sprinklers in all high-rise buildings in excess of 75 feet and has been adopted by the Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal.
The compromise LSE program for Chicago does not address the high-rise building as a whole and fails to appreciate the different characteristics of a high-rise building (i.e. means of egress protection, vertical penetrations, smoke control, compartmentation, etc.) and the importance of proper maintenance.
In short, Chicago’s LSE program lacks a life safety package approach that is considered standard and widely accepted throughout the rest of the nation.
Lia notes that Chicago’s LSE is essentially a “watered down” version of NFPA 101 and does not address all of the key issues in high-rise fire safety.
Furthermore, Chicago’s LSE program provides no additional requirements that are not already contained in the Chicago Fire Code and Chicago Building Code, except for a fire department communications system in stairwells, which was in response to specific issues identified in the fatal Cook County Administration Building fire.
Lia questions whether this building at 260 East Chestnut Street, as well as many other high-rise buildings in Chicago, has been complying with the determined timeline for the installation of fire sprinklers.
Under the current LSE program, building owners and property managers are making minimal repairs to various aspects of their buildings.
“Quite honestly, we are uncertain that the City of Chicago has been effectively enforcing these retrofit projects and keeping them on track. The city needs to be sure that even the most meager of provisions in the Life Safety Evaluation are being met in order to provide the highest level of fire protection available under this system,” says Lia.
Highlighted by this latest disaster, however, Chicago’s LSE system tragically allows selected residential high-rise buildings to avoid the installation of fire sprinklers.
The city’s LSE Web site states: “When the Life Safety Evaluation and its recommended improvements are completed, I assure you that your building will be safer for its occupants.”
However, with little to no follow-up on the compliance of this ordinance, “quick fix” improvements have the potential to become big issues by falling back into the problems that existed prior to the evaluations.
This latest fire tragedy illustrates that non-sprinklered high-rise residential buildings give residents a false sense of security from fire.
An annunciator system — a voice alarm system that senses heat and smoke — was present in the building, but had no capability to extinguish the blaze, nor could it control the smoke spread, high heat or flashover.
These types of systems may lead residents to wrongfully believe that their buildings have the equivalent protection of fire sprinklers.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no fire protection system that compares to fire sprinklers or offers as much protection from fires, allowing residents time to escape and preventing flashover.
Unfortunately, as is again the case, there is no improved life safety benefit achieved by Chicago’s LSE program. The ordinance is a deceptive pretense that has the potential to continually contribute to lives lost should future fires occur in the buildings affected by the LSE ordinance.
The Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board (NIFSAB) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting progressive legislation, raising public awareness, and educating code officials and governmental policy makers by demonstrating the proven performance of fire sprinklers in saving both lives and property.
For more information, please visit firesprinklerassoc.org.
- National Fire Protection Association High-Rise Fire Reports: nfpa.org
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) / U.S. Fire Administration “American Burning Recommissioned” Report: usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/fa-264.pdf