Chicago’s Stance on Residential High-Rise Sprinklers

The year 2017, so far, has seen a lot of fires in residential high-rise buildings all around the world. On June 14th, 2017, the Grenfell Tower in West London caught fire, leading to the death of 80 unfortunate souls. More than 70 people were injured. On July 15th, 2017, another fire broke out in the residential high-rise Marco Polo apartments, leaving three dead in its wake. On August 3rd, 2017, the Torch Tower in Dubai was on fire. Luckily, due to the fire exits which were free of smoke, all the residents of this high-rise building were able to escape unscathed.

Due to the breakout of fires in residential high-rise buildings, fire safety code requirements in Chicago, especially the sprinkler systems, requires more attention. If the Marco Polo apartments had automatic sprinkler systems, it would have been a completely different story. The fire wouldn’t have been able to damage the building. On top of that, the automatic sprinkler system could have averted the loss of those three lives.

On October 17th, 2003, there was a fire in Cook County Administration Building, which took the lives of six people. The building didn’t have to adhere to the Chicago Municipal Code that every floor in commercial high-rise buildings constructed post-1975 should have sprinkler systems in place, as its construction took place before 1975.

To tackle this issue as quickly as possible, in November 2003, Chicago’s City Council passed an ordinance which made it mandatory for buildings constructed before 1975 to follow the latest standards for fire safety. The City Council made the new ordinance a part of the minimum requirements for all old buildings.

According to the new ordinance, all commercial buildings that are more than 80 feet should have automatic sprinkler systems on every floor. However, owners of older buildings had time until 1st September 2005 to add automatic sprinkler systems to the building plan. The ordinance also gave them time till January 1st, 2017, to completely install the automatic sprinkler systems. However, the building owners had to install them in thirds till the date of completion.

Exemptions from the residential high-rise sprinkler systems

Although the Chicago City Council is strict about the building fire and safety codes, there are the following exemptions for the requirements of sprinkler systems:

  • Stadiums and parking facilities that are open-air
  • Any residential buildings that are non-transient such as condos, dormitories, hotels, condominiums, and rental apartments
  • Historic buildings and landmarks of Chicago

Introduction of Life Safety Evaluation

However, due to the high cost of automatic sprinkler systems, the government introduced Life Safety Evaluation for older buildings. Only if the older buildings got more than the minimum score in the Life Safety Evaluation test will they be exempted from installing automatic sprinkler systems. The checklist for the test focuses on various measures for fire safety such as different methods to escape, communication systems with residents during a fire, and the ability of the building to contain and fight a fire to name a few.

Only a licensed architect has the rights to conduct the Life Safety Evaluation test for older buildings. Buildings that had a score above the minimum requirement had to submit the building plan by 1st January 2006 to complete the certification.

If buildings were unable to reach the minimum score requirement in the Life Safety Evaluation, the owners had to install automatic sprinkler systems. However, if they were able to submit building plans by 1st January 2015, that could pass the test by getting the minimum score; they didn’t have to install the sprinkler systems. The building owners also have to notify the residents about the Life Safety Evaluation score.

If there are any violations to the Life Safety Evaluation and automatic sprinkler systems, building owners will have to pay hefty fines every day.