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Counties pursue different courses on fire safety

Sprinkler rule irks Rock Falls captain

Bill Milby, Rock Falls Fire Department captain
Bill Milby, Rock Falls Fire Department captain

Earlier this week, the Lee County Board approved a resolution against proposed requirements for fire sprinkler systems.

No questions. The vote was unanimous.

The Whiteside County Board, on the same day, overwhelmingly rejected the same measure.

The difference: An impassioned speech from Bill Milby, a captain with the Rock Falls Fire Department.

In recent weeks, the United Counties Council of Illinois has been asking counties to approve the resolution. It opposes a proposed amendment to the state’s Life Safety Code, which would require the installation of fire sprinkler systems in new homes and the retrofitting of sprinklers in high-rises.

After sparking a controversy, State Fire Marshal Larry Matkaitis withdrew his proposal this month.

The resolution contended the cost of new houses would rise dramatically with the requirements. It also said the rules would be an unfunded mandate that would lead to others.

When the issue came up at Tuesday’s Whiteside County Board meeting, Milby, a board member, asked a series of questions about fire safety.

One of them was about deaths from fires in one- and two-family homes. Milby reported they have dropped by more than half since 1977 because of the widespread use of smoke alarms.

Other changes to fire and building codes, he said, have further reduced the number of deaths.

Last month’s fire in downtown Prophetstown quickly consumed eight buildings.

“Those buildings in Prophetstown were 100 years old. That was before building codes,” Milby, D-Rock Falls, said. “How can you lose eight buildings? It’s the way the buildings were built.”

He said he resists the reference to the proposed rules as an unfunded mandate.

“Everything I talked about are unfunded mandates,” he said, “but they’re there to protect your life and firefighters’ lives.”

Board member Ruth Stanley, R-Sterling, said the rules would cover “new and existing structures,” referring to information in the board’s agenda. (The requirements would not affect existing single-family homes.)

Milby countered that the reference to unfunded mandates and the Life Safety Code is a “slap in the face” to firefighters.

“They are saying the Life Safety Code is a piece of crap,” he said. “Sorry, I get emotional about this. This is about the whole Life Safety Act. It is there for people’s protection.”

In a voice vote, the 27-member board turned down the resolution. Only a member or two could be heard supporting it. Such measures are rarely rejected.

“You reaffirmed why I ran for this board,” Milby said.

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