CT Editorial: Preparing to Chicago's Next Towering Inferno

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Chicago Tribune Editorial:


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.

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