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Fire code faults found in another county high-rise

Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times

Ten months after the blaze that killed six people in the Cook County Administration Building in the Loop, fire code violations have been found in another county high-rise -- even after State's Attorney Richard Devine sent a letter to county officials urging them to safeguard their buildings.

On July 22, firefighters responded to a 911 call about smoke coming from the cafeteria in the 14-story Cook County Criminal Courts Administration Building at 2650 S. California on the Southwest Side. It turned out the smoke came from food being cooked in the second-floor cafeteria. No one was injured and there was no property damage.

But when fire officials inspected the building, they discovered several fire-code violations.

The Chicago Fire Department ordered the county to "make necessary repairs to the fire alarm system" within 24 hours, according to an inspection report.

The department told the county to install an "annunciator panel" after being told it was "non-functional," the report said. An annunciator panel is a visual device indicating a certain area or room within the building in which a detector is activated.

The county also was instructed to appoint a safety warden and alternate safety warden. The warden is supposed to conduct weekly safety inspections and keep a ledger, but that was not happening, the inspection report said.

The Fire Department conducted a followup inspection this month.

"It is our belief that the county is showing good faith in the progress of the repairs and they will comply," said Larry Langford, a spokesman for the Fire Department.

Caryn Stancik, a spokeswoman for Cook County Board President John Stroger , said a safety warden and alternate have been identified and will be trained this week. The warden will keep a ledger of inspection results, she said.

Stancik said the fire alarm system was working properly on July 22 and did not need any repairs. It was not activated because there was no fire and the smoke escaped through the building's exhaust system, she said.

She said the county is installing a new annunciator panel as part of a $1.5 million upgrade of the building's fire safety system. The upgrade was launched long before July 22, she said.

Stancik stressed that there is a sprinkler system in the high-rise.

"Absolutely, we believe the building is safe," she said.

Prosecutors who work at the building -- which is near the Cook County Jail and adjacent to the Criminal Courts Building -- recalled the confusion after firefighters arrived on July 22.

"We were in the dark about what was going on," said one prosecutor, who requested anonymity.

Elevators were shut down in the building. Employees did not know whether to stay put or leave, the prosecutor said.

Several months ago, Devine sent a letter to the county stressing the need to ensure the safety of the county's high-rises at 2650 S. California and 1340 S. Michigan, where the Domestic Violence Court is located.

"In light of what happened at the administration building [at 69 W. Washington] last October, we certainly hope and expect that the county is doing everything it can" to make those buildings safe, said John Gorman, a spokesman for Devine. "We have a large number of people at both buildings and we are concerned about their safety."

Devine escaped the deadly Oct. 19 blaze at 69 W. Washington. The 12th-floor fire sent smoke into a southeast stairwell, killing six people trapped there.

A Cook County commission found numerous safety problems at 69 W. Washington after the fire. The six deaths would not have happened if the building were equipped with sprinklers or stairwell doors that automatically unlock, the panel found.

The commission determined that firefighters should have taken control of a lobby fire panel that allows them to communicate throughout the building on an intercom system. Firefighters should have notified building tenants to stay in their offices, except on the floors near the fire. Instead, the building's security workers mistakenly ordered an evacuation of the building over the intercom system, the commission said.



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