Chief douses tower fire claims

Evanston Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky says the city is fully prepared to fight fires in any high-rise building, whether it’s 20 or 60 stories tall.

"The tactics and strategies are the same," Berkowsky said. "Practically speaking, beyond eight stories, we treat all fires as a high-rise situation."

Berkoswky told the Plan Commission Wednesday night that some commission members and residents had misinterpreted his statement, in a letter to the commission last week that Chicago can immediately respond to a blaze with up to 61 firefighters, while in Evanston a full shift includes 26.

They had concluded he was arguing the city would need to hire over 100 additional firefighters at an annual cost of over $10 million to adequately protect the 49-story tower proposed for the Fountain Square block — a cost roughly three times greater than the anticipated tax revenue from the development.

Berkowsky said that he is seeking six additional positions to be able to fully staff the city’s third ambulance, but that with mutual assistance agreements with surrounding communities, the city is well equipped to handle major blazes.

"We have a comprehensive standard operating guide and review and train on a regular basis," he said. "Just eight weeks ago we conducted nighttime training exercises at the Rotary International building.

Berkowsky conducts training classes in fighting high-rise fires for neighboring departments at the fire training center in Glenview and said firefighters from communities including Wilmette and Winnetka participate in those classes.

The chief said, "Probably the most prominent fire in an Evanston high-rise involved a single-room blaze at the 1603 Orrington building that blew out a window. And by the time the fire was over we had over 100 firefighters there and probably had the majority in 10 to 15 minutes."

Evanston has had buildings taller than the seven-story limit of aerial ladders since the 1920s and construction on its first building topping the 20-story mark began nearly 40 years ago.

Community Development Director James Wolinski told the commission that under the international building code the city follows any building over 75 feet tall is built under high-rise regulations.

"They are very strict," Wolinski said, requiring automatic sprinkler systems throughout the building, a secondary water supply for the sprinkler system and non-combustible materials for all structural elements.

In addition, he said, they require automatic fire detection and standby power systems.

"I’m not here to speak either in favor or against" this project, Wolinski said, but if the decision is made to build it, "it will be safe."

The Plan Commission formally adopted its recommendation in support of the project on a 4-3 vote Wednesday, and devoted over two hours to a full reading of the majority and minority reports on the project.

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