Thursday, December 09, 2004

Sprinkler Ordinances

The Chicago City Council is going to debate mandatory installation of sprinklers. There seems to be general agreement to revise the code to start a retrofit of commercial buildings built before the adoption of mandatory sprinklers in 1975, up to the revised code over a period of years. This seems sensible and is relatively non-controversial. The debate focuses on residential buildings. Building Committee chairman, Bernie Stone, has been reluctant to force mandatory installation of sprinklers in residential buildings. His proposal stiffens life safety codes. Indications are Mayor Daley is leaning this way also. The real world confronts governmental paternalism. Alderman Burke is the principal force for universal installation of sprinklers.

I see philosophic and technical issues that bear on these questions. The net result is I’m leaning toward a variation on the Stone theme. Let’s start with the philosophic side. I’m an Illinois Republican in the Lincoln mode (Illinois is The Land of Lincoln). He is arguably most famous for the words “…government of the people, by the people and for the people…”. The people are in charge and the government officials serve them. This is not conducive to a top down command authority imposing burdens against the wishes of the governed. I’d tread very carefully imposing requirements on people in their homes. Alderman Burke is well intentioned, but may be overstepping his bounds. He apparently lives in a very large home. Has he installed sprinklers in it? If not, his leadership is questionable. There are also very practical differences in the challenges faced fighting fires in small, individual spaces and the more common large spaces seen in commercial spaces. It would make sense to have more stringent codes for commercial properties where the public is present with no piece of the ownership of the property. If residents don’t want to spend huge sums of money to protect their own lives, who gives us authority to force them? Aldermen are public officials and therefore could reasonably be seen to have a duty to public spaces.

But just as my “Birkett Solution” shown below (see December 3) aims at zero murder victims, we should adopt a “Stone Solution” to aim at zero fire deaths. I generally agree with the op-ed in the Thursday Sun-Times that we should have another public-private investigation to work on improvement. What the CFD needs to recognize it that their attitude toward the public is elitist. It may come with the job, but the public performed pretty well in this fire and should be trusted to continue to learn with appropriate guidance. Part of developing a better attitude would be to have outside civilian input, Community Fire Fighting if you will. This will team with the success of community policing. We aren’t turning the process over to the great unwashed, we’re looking for better ideas in our quest for zero defects. So while I have not seen the competing ordinances and cannot in good conscience , campaign for either here is a notional idea of how I’d proceed.

I'd change the code for commercial buildings to install sprinklers. I’d probably go along with the changes to the life safety code. But I’d do something more. I’d fund a citizen’s advisory board of outsiders with non-voting participation by the CFD. And I’d have them work on recommendations, large or small, on how the public can make incremental improvements in the safety of their buildings. This follows the model of developing “Recommended Practices” before developing “Standards”. The reality is that codification means ossification. The code will always lag the leading edge of technology. There needs to be a way to progressively advance proven experience with advanced technology into the mandatory code. This is a way to accomplish just that. If Chicago funds such a panel with the technical resources at hand, it is likely to advance to the leading edge of fire safety technology. And those innovations are likely to be built in Chicago. That means the creation of new jobs and industries. Put the practical experience of Chicago’s firefighters at the hand of the innovators and entrepreneurs. Then watch good things happen!


Post a Comment

<< Home