Preparing for Chicago’s Next Towering Inferno

Living in a condo or apartment tower has its advantages: the views that come with height, the relative economy of compactness, the luxury of not perpetually raking, mowing and shoveling. But high-rise buildings of all types present unique risks, as deaths in vertical cities such as Chicago regularly attest:

On Jan. 8, 2012, Shantel McCoy didn’t know about a fire at her building, 3130 N. Lake Shore Drive, as she rode a still-operative elevator to her 12th-floor apartment. When the doors opened, a 1,500-degree blast of heat, smoke and gases overwhelmed her. Like Chicago’s other pre-1975 residential high-rises, her building was exempt from sprinkler requirements that apply to newer tall buildings. By the time firefighters reached McCoy, she was dead.

Owners of condo and apartment high-rises long have opposed mandatory sprinkler installation because retrofitting their buildings would be expensive. No doubt. But these also are the buildings where the statistical risk of death is much higher than it is in tall commercial structures. How to reconcile the costs and benefits? A decade ago, Chicago aldermen reached a decision akin to Solomon’s proposal to cut the baby in half:

The aldermen dictated that, among pre-1975 high-rises, the statistically safer commercial structures had to install sprinklers by the end of 2016. But the more death-prone residential high-rises instead would be required to abide by a less expensive fire-safety point system by the end of 2011. Come 2011, though, the City Council kowtowed to residential building owners who hadn’t met their deadline and awarded them an extension to the end of 2014. We hope the aldermen take a closer look at those costs and benefits, death risks included, and grant no more extensions.

These two powerful forces — life preservation and the cost of providing it — drive a perennial debate about sprinklers in this city. The latest evidence is a bill, sponsored by state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, that was deflected back to committee earlier this month.

Feigenholtz had received complaints from, yes, owners of older residential high-rises last year when the state fire marshal’s office proposed — and, after political opposition, withdrew — increasing the sprinkler requirements on those buildings. Her bill would require that the full legislature approve any statewide sprinkler mandates.

It’s unarguable that residential buildings have fire death risks higher than commercial buildings do: Occupants of residences cook, smoke, drink and often dump garbage down chutes that make excellent chimneys. Children add risks.

Yet residents of high-rises tend to have a false sense of security. John Hall, head of fire analysis and research for the Massachusetts-based National Fire Protection Association, tells us his group’s surveys have found that people feel more at danger from fire in places where risks are influenced by the actions of strangers — as in commercial buildings — than they do in their own dwellings and cars, even though their objective risk at home or on the road is much greater.

Many U.S. fire codes reflect that illogical belief: Americans (and, as in Chicago, their politicians) answer the question “How safe is safe enough?” more leniently for living spaces than they do for commercial spaces. So we wind up with the greatest sprinkler protection in buildings where it’s least likely to save lives.

Another paradox: While blazes are harder to contain and strike in the large open spaces common to commercial high-rises than they are in the smaller spaces of residential buildings, the commercial buildings are easier to evacuate. As a rule, everyone in them is awake, sober, mobile and old enough to follow precise exit instructions.

We wish Chicago pols would put more effort into ensuring that residential buildings comply with the fire safety requirements that already exist. Shortly after City Hall gave residential high-rises their three-year deadline extension, Mayor Rahm Emanuel sensibly urged the owners of all pre-1975 high-rises to promptly make their buildings safer: “This is not like a final exam where you wait until the last hour of the last day to figure this out. I expect you to use this time to put in place a sprinkler system and the safety and security systems you need. … I don’t expect you to use the time all the way to the end.”

Aldermen, legislators, more of that.

If you live or work in an older high-rise, have the building owners said they’re working on fire safety, or planning to meet their deadline, or saying anything else short of, “We’re already in compliance”?

Remind them that when Chicago suffers its next towering inferno, history will shine more benevolently on owners, occupants and politicians who put safety first.

And finally: Next time you walk into a Chicago high-rise, think about Shantel McCoy. She did nothing wrong but lost her life to fire at a building height from which none of us could safely leap.