On the evening of December 20th, a stove-top grease fire on the 23rd floor of the Adler Place residential high-rise on Chicago’s Near South Side was controlled by single fire sprinkler. Though the condo owner failed to extinguish the fire, the fire sprinkler quickly responded to prevent the fire from spreading.

A very different result occurred on December 28 in an unsprinklered Old Town residential high-rise. An accidental furnace fire damaged the 19th floor of LaSalle Terrace, where intense flames were visible from street level.

The two differing fires come days before Chicago’s January 1, 2015, deadline for pre-1975 residential high-rises to comply with the city’s Life Safety Evaluation (LSE) ordinance. Affected buildings must have one- or two-way communications systems and door/corridors that are fire-rated for one hour. But to pass the LSE, many buildings require additional measures. By installing fire sprinklers, residential high-rises can bypass those measures entirely.

LaSalle Terrace

On December 28th, flames erupt from the unsprinklered 19th floor of Chicago’s LaSalle Terrace condominiums. Photo: Chicago Fire Department

“No one was injured in the LaSalle Terrace fire, but there likely will be a costly restoration process,” says Tom Lia, executive director of the nonprofit Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board. “Although the high-rise passed its LSE inspection, the owner did so without installing fire sprinklers. There is no proactive technology in the building to stop fires while they are small and before they spread.”

Nearly 100 of the residential high-rises affected by Chicago’s LSE have already chosen to install fire sprinklers for LSE compliance. However, as the deadline nears there still are many building owners and condo boards deliberating their options — many of which can be avoided by installing fire sprinklers.

“There are only two types of residential high-rises in Chicago — those with fire sprinklers and those without fire sprinklers,” says Lia. “High-rise owners, residents and prospective buyers must be mindful of the presence or absence of fire safety features, especially fire sprinklers, in their buildings.”

“The recent success of the fire sprinkler activation in Adler Place is clear evidence of the life- and property-saving benefits of fire sprinklers versus the damage caused by the LaSalle Terrace fire,” adds Lia. “Without fire sprinklers in Adler Place, the condo and neighboring units could have suffered major damage and experienced months of restoration. Even worse, it could have potentially ended in injuries or deaths to residents and responding firefighters.”