Under Pressure, Ill. Fire Marshal Drops Sprinkler Requirement

Aug. 3, 2013
The move came after thousands of residents contacted their local legislators to lobby against the proposal to install sprinklers in older high-rise buildings.

Aug. 03--Mounting public pressure from residents, condo owners and Chicago aldermen, as well as a nudge from Gov. Pat Quinn, prompted the Illinois state fire marshal on Friday to drop his push to require the owners of older high-rises to install sprinklers in their buildings.

The move came after thousands of residents wrote letters, called and visited the offices of their local legislators to lobby against the proposed stricter fire safety rules. It also came after a heated town hall meeting in which representatives from the fire marshal's office were ridiculed and interrogated about the proposed regulations.

"I am officially withdrawing the proposed rule before the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules to take into account substantial public comment and carefully re-examine this issue," Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis wrote in a statement Friday."It's become clear that any proposed state rule needs additional refinement."

Quinn encouraged Matkaitis to shelve his proposal.

"He did advise the fire marshal that clearly there was more work to do here," said Brooke Anderson, Quinn's spokeswoman. "Legitimate concerns have been raised by local officials."

Several legislators who serve on the legislative committee to which Matkaitis had submitted his proposal also said the fire marshal didn't have the authority to introduce it. Rules with potential for such a huge impact should go through the legislative process, said state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, a committee member.

"I just don't think he has the authority to issue the rule, and therefore I didn't have the authority to approve the rule," he said.

Rep. David Leitch, R-Peoria, said he suggested to the fire marshal that he bring the proposal to the full legislature, giving people a chance to give feedback. Both representatives said they had each received more than 1,000 emails and letters from the public.

Last month, Matkaitis proposed updated regulations that would have, among other things, required the owners of older residential high-rises to install sprinklers. The rules would have affected high-rises throughout the state but came under particular scrutiny in Chicago because of the prevalence of tall buildings.

Some Chicago building owners and residents voiced strong opposition, saying installing sprinklers would be too costly. Opponents complained that the cost would eventually get pushed on to residents through assessment fees and rent hikes.

"This rule was doomed for many of our residents," said Bill Schmidt, president of the Carl Sandburg Village Condo Association II, who also spent a day lobbying state representatives about the matter. "A third of our residents are on fixed incomes and retired. ... There is no way that even half of these people could afford this."

In Chicago, high-rises built after 1975 have been required to have sprinklers. But the city has struggled to get its older high-rises to comply with modern safety standards. The city does require building owners to pass a complicated inspection process to prove it has adequate fire safety measures.

Critics have dismissed sprinklers as unnecessary for buildings that have safety features like fire alarms, sophisticated elevators that return to the ground level if there is a blaze and doors that can hold off flames and smoke.

Matkaitis said in his statement Friday that the public hearing he had requested on the matter has been canceled. The news was celebrated by those who had been pushing back against Matkaitis' stance.

"While I believe the new rules were well-intentioned, Chicago already has strong fire safety regulations," said Ald. James Cappleman, 46th. "We were set to go down to Springfield with several groups of my constituents to testify. I'm truly pleased that the fire marshal ... came to his senses."

Tribune reporter Hal Dardick contributed.

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