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City Urging High-Rise Owners To Make Fire Safety Upgrades Now

CHICAGO (CBS) -- After a 32-year-old woman was killed in a fire at a high-rise apartment building in Lakeview, city officials have been trying to figure out how much progress other high rises are making toward installing updated fire safety systems.

Initially set to go into effect this year, the requirement for older high-rises to install new fire safety systems was pushed back three years last month amid concern from building owners about the cost of installing the systems.

As CBS 2's Derrick Blakley reports, the death of Shantel McCoy on Sunday at an apartment building at 3130 N. Lake Shore Dr. has prompted the city to find out how fast other, older high rises are moving toward safety upgrades. They're also urging building owners to make those upgrades now.

The city's Buildings Department has sent a letter to the owners of 694 high rises built before 1975, reminding them of the 2015 deadline to install new fire safety systems.

"We strongly urge building owners and their property managers to begin and complete any required life safety upgrades to their buildings as soon as possible," the letter reads.

Buildings Commissioner Michael Merchant said, "What we're doing is we're asking that they start taking proactive steps right now, as opposed to waiting for the last minute."

The problem is, waiting until the last minute paid off for high-rise building owners last year, as the City Council agreed last month to give them an extra three years to improve their fire safety systems, less than a month before the original deadline.

Ald. Ray Suarez (31st), who chairs the City Council Committee on Housing and Real Estate, said Tuesday that, "The cost of retrofitting these buildings is, at times, so cost prohibitive, it's sometimes so expensive, that some of these people feel that, well, 'why don't we put up a new building?'"

Some aldermen said they want the city to help owners reduce the cost.

"What is it that we, the city is doing to help defray some of that cost for them, because it is quite costly," Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) said.

McCoy died when she got onto an elevator to the 12th floor, not knowing a fire had broken out there. When the elevator doors opened on the 12th floor, she was overcome by intense heat and smoke.

Under the fire safety ordinance, buildings would be required to install systems that would shut down elevators in the event of a fire, preventing them from being used by anyone but the Fire Department.

But some aldermen pointed out that tenants in the apartment where the fire started propped their door open so their pets could get out, allowing the flames to spread to the hallway.

"It would have made a difference if that door had been closed. That's one of the best ways to contain a fire and, actually, one of the most cost effective ways," Ald. James Cappleman (46th) said.

It wasn't only fat cat building owners who complained about the cost of
safety upgrades. Many condo owners fought them, too, fearing huge special assessment charges.

Some aldermen said they hope new technologies can offer future upgrades at lower cost.

But there appeared to be little appetite among the aldermen for approving another deadline extension for the fire safety upgrades.

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