SPRINGFIELD – Governor Rod R. Blagojevich today signed legislation to help ensure that people do not get trapped in stairwells of new hotels, schools and other high-rise public assembly buildings during fires. The legislation is in response to the October 2003 fire at the Cook County Administration building when six people died.
Senate Bill 46, sponsored by Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago) and Rep. Sidney Mathias (R-Arlington Heights), requires owners of new hotels, churches, schools, theaters, and other public assembly buildings over four stories to either: (1) ensure that stairwell enclosure doors don’t lock and prevent re-entry from the stairwell to the interior of the building; or (2) equip stairwell enclosure doors with an electronic lock release system that is activated upon loss of power, manually by a single switch accessible to building management or firefighters, and automatically by activation of the building’s fire alarm system.
“We owe it to the six innocent people who died that tragic day to make sure this never happens again. This new law will help make sure no one finds themselves trapped in a stairwell of a high rise building during a fire,” said Gov. Blagojevich.
Owners who choose the second option must also take certain safety precautions during the time needed to install the lock release and two-way communications systems, including ensuring re-entry into the building interior on the highest or second highest story (whichever allows access to another exit stairway); ensuring that there are no more than four stories between enclosure doors that provide access to another exit stairway, and posting signs at eye level and at the bottom of the door identifying if a door is a re-entry point and, if not, the location of the nearest re-entry door.
Regardless of which option building owners choose, stairwell enclosure doors at the main exit level of the building must remain unlocked from the stairwell side at all times.
“It’s heartbreaking to think the people in the Cook County Administration Building believed they were headed to safety and instead they were trapped,” said Sen. Silverstein. “Requiring building owners to incorporate these safety features into their buildings during construction is a common sense move that quite possibly could save lives in the future.”
“In 2003, a fire in the Cook County Administration Building turned tragic when workers and others were trapped in the stairwells and were unable to escape,” said Rep. Mathias. “This new law will help prevent such a tragedy from happening again. It will help ensure that everyone in multi-story buildings is able to escape in cases of emergency.”
In the days following the fire in the Cook County Administration Building, Gov. Blagojevich appointed former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt to conduct a full and independent review of the fire. Witt, widely recognized as the world’s top expert in investigating and dealing with tragedies, investigated what happened on October 17th, 2003 and recommended specific actions to make sure it never happens again.
Nearly a year after the fatal fire and extensive research and investigation, James Lee Witt Associates issued its report. The Witt Report found four key factors that led to the six deaths in the Cook County Administration Building. The factors include: lack of automated fire sprinklers, failure to adequately search and account for people in stairwells, opening the 12th floor stairway door allowing smoke and heat to enter the stairway, and locked stairway doors that did not allow people who were trapped to escape.
The Witt Report made a number of recommendations to Cook County and Building Management, City of Chicago, City of Chicago Fire Department and the State of Illinois to prevent future tragedies. Among those recommendations was installing a failsafe system for automatically unlocking stairway doors during emergencies at the Cook County Administration building. The new law the Governor signed today builds on that recommendation by requiring owners of new hotels, churches, schools, theaters, and other public assembly buildings over four stories to either ensure stairwell doors do not lock in the event of an emergency or equip stairwells with an electronic lock release system that is activated upon loss of power, manually by a single switch accessible to building management or firefighters, and automatically by activation of the building’s fire alarm system.
Building owners must comply with the new law by January 1st, 2006.