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Zoning Committee OKs smoke detector mandate over Chicago Fire Department objections

Chicago’s oldest residential buildings will have until Jan. 1, 2023 to install smoke detectors with 10-year batteries,

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), seen here talking to Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), on Monday convinced the City Council’s Zoning Committee to approve a costly fire safety mandate that will give older residential buildings until Jan. 1, 2023 to install smoke detectors with ten-year batteries.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago’s oldest residential buildings would have until 2023 to install smoke detectors with 10-year batteries under a costly fire safety mandate advanced Monday over the objections of the Chicago Fire Department.

Fire Commissioner Richard Ford II and Public Safety Committee chairman Chris Taliaferro (29th) are dead-set against the idea — and sounded the alarm during a recent closed-door meeting with Lightfoot’s Office of Legislative and Governmental Affairs.

They’re concerned about the added cost to homeowners already absorbing a punishing parade of property tax increases.

On Monday, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, ignored those objections, persuading his Zoning Committee colleagues to approve his ordinance on a 9-to-3 vote.

Aldermen Anthony Beale (9th) and David Moore (17th) tried and failed to delay the vote, citing the CFD’s absence and opposition. When the delay failed, they voted no. So did Ald. Ray Lopez (15th).

“The Chicago Fire Department is not in support of this ordinance. ... We have to take the lead … from the Chicago Fire Department, [which] is in the business of saving lives,” said Beale, who later told colleagues CFD “knew nothing about” Monday’s vote.

Beale argued the new mandate threatens to undermine years of public education campaigns and free smoke detector distribution by CFD.

“There’s a reason why we say, `Daylight savings time, check your batteries.’ Now, we’re gonna say, `Don’t check it for 10 years.’ Now you’re asking seniors to remember ten years down the road to change or check their batteries when we have put years embedded in” a public education campaign, Beale said.

“That’s one of the reason why I’m opposed to it. Number two is the undue financial burden on seniors. Now, we’re about to add another onto them and they can’t afford their prescription drugs. They can’t afford their groceries. … And now, we’re gonna ask them to pay a little bit more for a smoke detector. That’s just unrealistic at this time.”

Villegas countered: “Take into account the cost to change the battery every two years, the labor to go do it. When you add that up, it’s cheaper to do the 10-year battery.”

Buildings Commissioner Judy Frydland sided with Villegas. She argued the city was “not abolishing” existing smoke detectors that normally use a nine-volt battery, which can be removed during cooking; the 10-year batteries can’t be removed.

Chicago Fire Department firefighters pass out smoke detectors in the 4000 block of West Wilcox after a fatal fire in February 2018.
The Chicago Fire Department distributes thousands of free smoke detectors a year. Sometimes, they are handed out after a fatal fire; that’s what these firefighters were doing in the 4000 block of West Wilcox back in 2018. The fire department fears a new mandate to install pricier detectors with longer-lasting batteries will mean fewer homes will install them.
Sun-Times file

In fact, the Chicago Fire Department will pass out the old versions until Jan. 1, 2023, when the mandate takes effect.

But once those smoke detectors expire, the owners of buildings “erected or converted to residential use before June 1, 1984” must install what she called “much safer” smoke detectors with the 10-year batteries.

“If you put in a new home smoke detector in December 2022, you can keep it until 2032. And when it’s time to upgrade, you install a 10-year battery. It’s not a matter of re-wiring,” Frydland said.

“This is not yanking out every smoke detector in everybody’s home. It’s a very gradual way to go to the new technology.”

Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford could not be reached for comment on Monday’s vote.

Last month, Langford told the Sun-Times forcing all Chicago homes to switch to smoke detectors with 10-year batteries would mean “a net loss of protected homes.”

“The cheapest standard detector is $5. The cheapest 10-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 Sun-Times.

“We give away thousands of units every year, but we have to pay for them. This means we will pass out 66 percent less. If we’re giving out 66 percent 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.”

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