Battle brewing over smoke detector proposal in city’s oldest homes, residential buildings
The proposal by the mayor’s City Council floor leader is vehemently opposed by the city’s fire commissioner and the chair of the Public Safety Committee on grounds that it’s too costly.
A heated political battle is simmering behind-the-scenes over a proposal by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s City Council floor leader to require smoke detectors installed in Chicago’s oldest homes and residential buildings to either be hard-wired or have ten-year batteries in the detectors.
Fire Commissioner Richard Ford II and Public Safety Committee chairman Chris Taliaferro (29th) are dead-set against the idea — and sounded the alarm about it during a closed-door meeting Monday with Lightfoot’s Office of Legislative and Governmental Affairs.
“We’re adding a brand new price point for people who are already getting hit with tax increases and all of these other extra fees and costs. Are we just adding that much more of a financial burden on them to a program that is already working?” Taliaferro said.
“The fire commissioner is very concerned about the price point, as I am. Why is there a specific need to require a ten-year battery that’s costing a lot of money when we have residents that won’t be able to afford it?”
For years, the Chicago Fire Department has been educating residents and building owners about the need for working smoke detectors and distributing free smoke detectors.
The strategy has worked to reduce fire deaths “to almost single-digits,” Taliaferro said.
“I don’t want to see low-income communities impacted because that’s where we’ve seen a tremendous amount of success in reducing fire fatalities. I don’t want to see that trend turn around because now we’re requiring folks in low-income communities to have expensive smoke detectors,” Taliaferro said.
“I have an 87-year-old woman who owns a three-flat in my ward. Her husband passed away. This would require her to buy a $57 smoke detector and put it every single room in that building. That’s just one person. We can’t assume that, just because you own a building, you make good money.”
Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford agreed that forcing all Chicago homes to have smoke detectors with ten-year batteries would “result in a net loss of protected homes.”
“The cheapest standard detector is $5. The cheapest ten-year we find is $15. While it’s true that, in the long run, it’s cheaper to operate, most people make the purchase based on what they can spend now,” Langford wrote in a text message to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“We give away thousands of units every year, but we have to pay for them. This means we will pass out 66% less. If we’re giving out 66% less and the cost to poor folk is tripled to $15-plus, we will lose on private homes….Single family homes will see a big drop in purchases.”
Villegas stood his ground.
“We’ve had fires in the past few years that have killed people. What’s been the common cause? No smoke detectors working,” Villegas said.
Villegas argued that the dramatic improvement in fire safety sailed through both houses of the Illinois General Assembly in 2017, but Chicago was exempt from the requirement.
His ordinance would remedy that. It states, “On or after Jan. 1 , 2023, all approved smoke alarms installed in buildings erected or converted to residential use prior to June 1, 1984” must either include ten-year batteries or be “permanently wired to the electrical service of each dwelling unit.”
The mayor’s floor leader accused Ford and Taliaferro of over-stating the increased cost.
“This is an up-front cost with a savings over the period of owning a smoke detector,” Villegas said.
“The numbers prove themselves out. The ten-year battery is a cheaper alternative and a safer alternative. You don’t have to replace the battery as frequently. And if it’s hard-wired, for sure you won’t have any issue with the smoke detectors unless the power goes out.”