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(Above) Chicago Fire Department vehicles parked on North State Street next to Marina City on February 19.

Condo residents disappointed with building communication during fire

Hundreds of residential high rise buildings constructed in Chicago before 1975 do not have fire sprinklers. A new ordinance requires these buildings to undergo rigorous evaluation and have enhanced safety features, including a voice communication system. But how should that system be used?

26-Feb-15 – After opening their apartment doors and seeing thick smoke in the hallway, some residents of Marina City say it took at least 20 minutes to get any official instructions or updates.

During that time, a small fire in a trash chute on an upper floor of Marina City’s west tower was producing smoke that was, said one resident, difficult to breathe and impossible to see through.

There were no injuries and the numerous Chicago Fire Department vehicles that arrived at Marina City at 11:38 a.m. were quickly recalled. But residents say there was no communication from building management despite a voice communication system that was installed and tested as required by a new city ordinance.

Bill Edlebeck, who walked down from the 40th floor of the west tower, says he was able to call 911 but unable to reach anyone in the building management office.

“The building failed at communication,” he says. “All the alarms were going off including one that sounded like a submarine preparing to dive, but no instruction or even acknowledgement that anything was even being done.”

Barry Mc Sweeney, who lives on the 43rd floor of the west tower, also was surprised by the lack of communication.

“I found it amazing that smoke could fill the halls, fire alarms can go off, and there was no information given to residents over the intercom,” said Mc Sweeney. “The announcement…from the fire department came at least 20 minutes after we first discovered the hallways were filled with smoke.”

Mc Sweeney (left) opened his door to find the hallway filled with smoke and a fire alarm sounding. He walked down a nearby stairwell to about the 40th floor.

“We were met by maintenance staff opening fire escape doors and propping them open with cardboard.”

Fire department prefers to make announcements

While there are general guidelines for building personnel to make announcements during emergencies, the Chicago Fire Department says they prefer to handle that.

“In a high rise situation, one of our guys takes control of the system and makes proper announcements,” spokesperson Larry Langford told Loop North News. “Managers often say the wrong thing, not knowing what CFD needs to do. We will keep control until the situation is over.”

If building personnel are going to make announcements, any warning message should be “clear, consistent, concise, and candid,” according to Dr. Erica Kuligowski of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The source of the message, says the report, should be “someone who is perceived as credible by the building population.”

Shannon Grealy, manager of the residential property at Marina City, did not respond to an invitation to comment for this story.

Marina Towers Condominium Association is still waiting for results of its Life Safety Evaluation last November – but based on comments from inspectors, the 896-unit condo association at Marina City does not think it will pass.

“There are a number of things the inspectors want us to either repair or replace,” said an unidentified director in a monthly report to unit owners. “We have already begun work on complying with some of the easy things that the inspectors verbally requested so that we can have them finished as soon as possible.”

Sprinklers contain day’s other condo fire

February 23 saw two condominium fires in River North. That evening, a small fire was contained by sprinklers in a unit on the 14th floor of Erie on the Park.

The 24-story, 125-unit condo on West Erie Street was completed in 2002 and is required to have a sprinkler system.

(Photo) Erie on the Park from Montgomery A. Ward Park on July 11, 2013.

Tom Lia, executive director of the nonprofit Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board, says there is a “glaring” difference in fire protection between newer high rises and buildings constructed before 1975.

“Fire sprinklers,” he says, “are the only technology that actively control a fire and provide residents with a safe route of escape.”

According to Lia, about 100 of the older buildings, exempt from having sprinklers, chose nonetheless to install them to avoid the additional requirements of Chicago’s Life Safety Evaluation ordinance that had a deadline for compliance of January 1.