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.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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16 Comments

  1. My response to typical Evanstonian mentality.
    Dear self-righteous whiners,
    The only people at risk (if indeed there is an elevated risk) are the ones who will live in the building. Our comfort zone is our business. If the risk of fire makes you uncomfortable, buy somewhere else. In the meantime, we’re not your kids…stop telling us what to think and how to live.
    Thank you,
    Ordinary Guy

  2. WMDs?
    Ha! This is hilarious. Now that the anti-development kooks can’t use this as an excuse to be against the proposed tower, I wonder what they’ll turn to next as the crux of their argument.

  3. Fire Chief
    So what does he know? He is just a fire chief. He is probably on the payroll of the developers who want to bring growth, construction, commerce, and residents to our downtown – and he is probably just kissing up to the city council, those arrogant people who think that they have a right to run the city..

    The Residents do not want a tower. The Residents demand low density development, strip malls , and parking lots. Maybe a Kohl’s would be nice on Main or Oakton, if it had a giant parking lot. We will not be happy until Evanston becomes a mini-Schaumburg on the lake.

  4. Are the fire resources positioned well in Evanston?
    With all the building down town one might wonder – if the resources are properly placed in the community? Also why the need for the additional six people? The city does not have the internal resources to fight a highrise fire, so pretending Wilmette is going to provide those resources is interesting. Also you are building alot of tall buildings here, forget about the tower in downtown – Wilmette fire fighters are not going to get down chicago ave very fast.
    I would agree that the city should have all the new condo buildings with sprinklers – at 75 feet that is too tall – the smaller height buildings should also be required to have sprinklers given the city is allowing buildings to be built with limited access for fire trucks I see problems in a low raise fire also..

    1. So called expert
      I couldn’t agree with Junad more. I mean, what does the fire chief know about fighting fires? Sure, I’ve never so much as used a fire extinguisher on a little kitchen fire before, but I know for a fact that if Evanston builds the proposed tower it will not have anywhere near the resources it needs to handle a blaze in the building and will have to spend millions of dollars annually to adequately prepare itself for such a contingency. I don’t need facts or figures or common sense to tell me these things. I just know them. I know I am against the tower because it feels right, and this ill-preparedness of the fire department, real or not, confirms it.

      1. Ryan are you an expert on development?
        Ryan how about posting your full name? Have you ever been at a city council meeting or looked at the budget? Do you know how much money the city has spent to replace almost all its fire stations? They are currently replacing one on west central street. By the way the fire chief is an expert but he also is involved in the politics of the city and fire department don’t kid yourself. Also firefighters here are involved in the elections of city council members. ( they are allow to do so like everyone else) So lets reconize so called expert opinion has politics in it. Ryan what is your area of expert knowledge?

        1. Fire Stations
          I think that the fire stations on Central were replaced because they were obsolete. Nothing to do with high-rises.

          Junad – do you think that by not having tall buildings, we would never have to upgrade our fire stations or replace old equipment?

          I don’t know about Ryan, but I don’t have time to go to City Council meetings. I elect an alderman to do that work for me. I monitor what is going on – and if the alderman does something really stupid ( like stopping this development) I will vote against him.

        2. Cicero once said…
          “When you have no basis for an argument, abuse the plaintiff.” Who cares if I, or anyone else, does or does not use their full name on their posts? I couldn’t care less what your name is; such a trivial thing makes no impact on the validity (or invalidity, as the case may be) of your arguments. If you want to start getting into discussions about details other than the meat of opposing arguments, let’s talk about your inability to write or express yourself in coherent, grammatical sentences. How am I, or anyone else, supposed to truly understand the substance of your reasoning if you can’t articulate yourself in a fully intelligible way?

          But, again, that is beside the point. Let’s look at the misguided arguments you are trying to promote. Rather than simply asking rhetorical questions about the city’s expenditures on upgrades to its fire fighting infrastructure, why not use facts and figures as you seem to claim to be an expert (which I clearly am not). How much has the city spent on new fire stations? Were all those upgrades required ONLY because of new development and not because ALL infrastructure needs periodic improvements? What motivations EXACTLY is the fire chief pressured by to rubber stamp the City Council’s decisions, especially those that are passed by such a close margin? He was appointed by the City Manager, not the council. What does the fact that all firemen are voting citizens have to do with anything at all?

          Please try to make an actual point when you make an argument and not just make noise. I’d love to try to understand what you are so opposed to. You may even have a good idea or two. Until I can actually see something of substance, though, I can’t know.

          1. A few facts.
            Ryan – the fire stations were not upgraded because of downtown development – I never suggested that. I have not been too impressed with the city of Evanston ability to plan or use resources wisely, the politics are always getting into the way. The increase in population in the downtown is an issue – but it you have just spent millions to rebuild stations in other areas you are not about to open a new one in the downtown. Interesting enough one council member wanted to close one fire station on central street and combine the two that did not go over too well, Ryan I do not know how long you have lived here – I do not know if you remember they built a new station on the west side about ten years ago – since before that there were alot of fires that turned bad and people died. Since the station was built I believe there are been few people hurt. Why did it take years to build that station?

            The cost to replace the stations has been about 3-4 million per station. I will tell you some city staff members are not all that happy that so much money has been spent on rebuilding fire stations but I will not say who.

            As with any employee the fire chief is an employee of a organization – yes he will give professional opinions but he will also play politics – he did not get to his position without keeping the council or the former manager happy. By the way not all the fire fighters who are involved in politics live here, they may be voting citizens but not taxpayers here.

            The issue of fire resources here is interesting – but it involves a much large discussion that just one tall building – if the council had any leadership they might suggest a the chief undertake a study to show the resources will be well positoned in the future once all the major development is done.

            You seem to think I am opposed to the the tall building – I am not completely opposed – or for it. It is just another tall building – not a landmark. It does not do much for the streetscape nor does it appear to be doing much to correct the entire block. There is plenty of bad development here – that does not mean I am opposed to development. Many people complained about the building with the orange balconies – frankly this is one of the best buildings in the downtown – it is well sited and constructed. The council has allowed too much over development that is the sites are being overbuilt and the public space and streetscape are not being addressed correctly. Here again – I am not against the development but how it is being done. I have been in Evanston since 1984 I am not interested returning the downtown to the state it was in 80’s or early 90’s.

            The development here is more than one tall building – it involves many issues – that are not being addressed well and each time there is a mistake – or something is done poorly – everyone suffers –

            I have warned the council several times to make certain they protect the rights of disable citizens (ADA) since they have created a mess in spots on the side walks that makes it difficult for people to use the sidewalks.

            By the way the staff wrote a memo to council on the spots – I warned them about, but they did not give me a copy – you may not know this but it is against the law to build side walks that limit access to disable citizens. The city does not want to admit fault since they must correct their mistakes.

            I also spoke at one hearing on a building and pointed out the issue of too narrow side walks the developer at the next meeting did push the building back. a few feet So they understand the issues –

            Ryan you are asking what i am opposed to? I do not like all the screw ups here that are against the public good. They waste our tax dollars and each time they screw something up it makes Evanston a less desirable place to live.

            I do not know if you are a owner ( you will pay for it as a renter also) – but next year will be interesting a huge property tax increase is coming – due to a major screw up –

    2. Extra Firefighters Needed
      I think that the City Council seriously needs to consider the fact that if this tower is built, Osama bin Laden himself might purchase a 747 and personally fly it directly into the base of the tower.

      Will Evanston be able to handle this kind of disaster? New York sent over 400 firefighters to the scene of 9/11, and then there are the paramedics, ambulances. And NYC still hasn’t finished cleaning up and replacing the hole in the ground after 7 years.

      Do we want Evanston to become the first target on Osama’s list? Do we want the corner of Church and Sherman to become the next Ground Zero?

      In order to prevent an attack by Osama bin Laden on downtown Evanston, I project that we will need to purchase some expensive radar equipment, anti-aircraft guns, and 1000 firefighters, paramedics, and emergency response team members.

      We can’t afford this.

  5. I agree
    There are just too many kooky, anti-development, heads stuck-in-the-sand, nutty residents in Evanston, who quite frankly, need to get a life or a serious dose of reality. I can not tell you (look for yourselves) how utterly ridiculous some of the comments on this issue have been: most notably the ones pontificating on comparing Evanston to Paris or London.

    Get a life, people. The new Evanston is truly the envy of most suburban communities.

    One last comment to Zachary: um, the city council does have a right to run the city. Ich Bin Ein Evanstonian!

    1. Paris, je t’aime.
      I thought the earlier posts comparing Evanston to Paris or London were utterly, ridiculously hilarious. Perfect example of the twisted self-image some Evanstonians have of themselves and their city. I find many of the people in this city to be quasi-intellectual, wannabe liberals who are actually uptight, conservative honkies.

      Important to note, though, that Zachary was being sarcastic in his earlier post. Thank goodness I have noticed a definite increase in the number of reasonable people who read and comment on this site, and who mock the folks who are opposed to any building with stairs or an elevator.

      1. moi aussi
        I do have one correction…I said that the Residents will not be satisfied until Evanston becomes a mini-Schaumburg on the lake. I meant to say miny-Schaumburg.

        Ryan – Thanks for noticing that I was being sarcastic. And thanks too, for pointing out the phony progressivism of the anti-development crowd – they really are uptight conservative honkies. This is a point I was trying to make in an earlier post . When they rave about progressive Wilmette and Glencoe, and denounce the idea of Evanston becoming a miny-Chicago, we have to ask what their real agenda is. Perhaps Chicago is a bit too diverse for them.

        I am not a fan of big business or Republicans either, but it is interesting to note that often those who denounce capitalism and development are often reactionaries pretending to be progressive. { For all of the admirers of London on this board, Prince Charles comes to mind. I am sure that if he were here, he would denounce the ghastly architecture of the tower , and he would prefer that everyone stay in their place and Evanston not change.}

  6. Fire Chief’s request for new personnel
    With the huge pension deficit on our plate, I hope that the City will classify ambulance drivers as something other than firemen so they are not getting the same pension place. Ambulance staff are not asked to risk their lives.

    1. In Evanston Paramedics ARE Firefighters
      Paramedics in Evanston are sworn and trained firefighters; you may be assigned to an ambulance one day and to the engine another. In this way, anyone who responds to a serious fire is trained to handle the medical emergencies which inevitably arise as well. In addition, paramedics do put their lives at risk because it is they who respond to violent incidents, or help patients with deadly infectious diseases. EMT responses are also likely to use more hours of a 24-hour shift than fire supression responses.

      Cities with non-union paramedic staff have a high turover rate, which means less experienced and less committed people in charge of saving lives. I don’t think that’s a fair trade-off.

      1. This approach to staffing appears to be increasing costs?
        Michele – it is my understanding we only hire firefighters who are paramedic trained thus we clearly on increasing costs. But if we can hire non-union paramedic staff that means we could privatize this function and most likely cut cost dramatically – thus eliminate alot of future pension costs. I understand your personal support for the current system – but I am a taxpayer and see no great value in fire fighters being trained as paramedics.

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