Most older residential towers fail to meet tougher fire standards

A Jan. 8 fire in a 21-story building at 3130 N. Lake Shore Drive claimed the life of Shantel McCoy. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune)

Years after owners of high-rise buildings were ordered to improve fire safety, more than half of Chicago's older residential towers have failed to implement changes that meet the city's tougher standards, records show.

Of the roughly 700 residential high-rises required to beef up fire safety measures as required under a 2004 ordinance, 369 still haven't submitted plans that meet city approval let alone made the necessary improvements, according to a Tribune analysis of the city records.

Chicago's safety standards for high-rises were toughened after a fire in 2003 killed six people trapped behind locked doors in a stairwell in the Cook County Administration Building in the Loop. A fire that killed a resident of a North Lake Shore Drive high-rise this month brought new attention to the ordinance and a series of delays that have occurred since it was first established.

Under the city's fire ordinance, owners of buildings constructed before 1975 are not required to install sprinklers but could enact a variety of other improvements to pass muster. The grading system is a complicated web of requirements that critics say falls short of ensuring residents' safety.

The massive undertaking proved to be costly and riddled with bureaucracy, requiring multiple layers of approval from city officials and condominium or cooperative boards inside the residential buildings. The ordinance had set Jan. 1 as the deadline for building owners to comply with the stricter safeguards. But with so many buildings so far from compliance, the City Council last month extended the deadline by three years.

Among the buildings that have yet to win the city's approval for their fire safety improvement plan was the high-rise where a woman died Jan. 8 in a fire. Shantel McCoy died of smoke inhalation after she came home early in the morning and attempted to take an elevator to her apartment, unaware of the fire on her floor.

Her death is the nightmare case that Chicago officials hoped to avoid when it upgraded fire safety standards a year after the six died in the Loop fire. After that tragedy, a government panel spent months studying what went wrong and recommended that commercial high-rises install sprinklers and make other improvements to help prevent a similar disaster.

But critics said the resulting ordinance fell short on its requirements for older residential high-rises and allowed those buildings to avoid the cost of installing sprinklers by making a series of smaller upgrades.

"It's a weak code that is weakly enforced, so it's virtually useless," said Tom Lia, executive director of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, which advocates that fire sprinkler systems be installed in all buildings.

"Sprinklers can put the fire out while it's still small. You may get a little wet, but you will still be alive," he said. "We've tried to show city officials that."

Under the ordinance, to be deemed safe, residential high-rises must reach scores of 27 for "fire safety" and 36 for both "means of egress" and "general safety," city officials said. An array of improvements each carry varying weights under the point system. For instance, smoke detectors installed in apartments and elevators and along building corridors would merit a score of 6 in each of those three categories. An elevator that automatically returns to the lobby during an emergency would score a 3.

Owners could receive negative scores for potential fire hazards such as dead-end corridors or doors that ignite in less than an hour, according to a city list of rules and regulations.

In the eight years since the ordinance was enacted, only 14 residential high-rises have completed the stricter upgrades called for by the city, the records show. The city has approved the plans of another 309 residential high-rises but hasn't yet signed off on the work. Most of the rest still need to resubmit their new plans and win city approval.

Some building owners complained that the city was asking for too many improvements too quickly, noting that even the proposals meant hiring expensive fire safety engineers.

Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, a chief sponsor of the 2004 ordinance, said the City Council last month extended the Jan. 1 deadline for another three years in order to work with high-rise owners instead of going to court to enforce the ordinance.

"If we spend our time litigating, it is not going to make these buildings safer," Tunney argued.

The cost of fire safety improvements inside older high-rise buildings in Chicago can skyrocket, particularly if they are vintage buildings, said Thomas Skweres, president of the Apartment Building Owners and Managers Association of Illinois.

"We're not talking about just a communication system and sprinklers. You are talking about decorating and putting people's walls back together, so there are ancillary costs that go with that," said Skweres, who estimated the cost of fire safety retrofitting can be as high as $300,000 for a 40-story building.

Building owners — along with the resident boards for condominium and cooperatively owned buildings that would have to help pay for the new improvements through special assessments — were also concerned that some portions of the ordinance were unnecessary and possibly outdated.