Just before midnight on a drizzly evening last June, Nicolas Mendoza parked his truck in front of his West Humboldt Park home and climbed his stoop after a late shift towing cars. When he heard a woman scream, he froze.
It was his neighbor, a 40-year-old woman, yelling that her four children were stuck inside their basement apartment as a fire raced through it.
“I was scared, because it was wailing from a desperate mother,” Mendoza said in Spanish.
With no working smoke alarm in their apartment, the mother and her boyfriend didn’t wake up until they heard the screams of her children. Disoriented, they managed to scramble out their bedroom window, but with the fire raging inside, they couldn’t get back in, they later told authorities.
Mendoza smashed a window to try to enter, but smoke blasted him in the face.
“It was too much,” he said. “There was nothing else that could be done.”
The four children were pulled from the fire, barely alive. Over the next several days, 11-year-old Angel Rodriguez, 6-year-old Jayden Cruz, 4-year-old Axel Cruz and 5-year-old Aiden Cruz would die from smoke inhalation.
Illinois policymakers have been straining in recent years to catch up with national trends in safety standards to make sure modern, reliable smoke alarms are installed in every home so that tragedies like the Humboldt Park fire are not repeated. But their efforts have been repeatedly undermined by real estate interests, by Chicago Fire Department officials who have lobbied to delay and weaken regulations, and by lackluster outreach and spotty enforcement on the part of city officials, an investigation by the Illinois Answers Project and the Chicago Tribune found.
Researchers have long pointed to higher incidences of fire deaths in homes that lack working smoke alarms. The trend has carried through recent tragedies in Chicago.
Illinois Answers and the Tribune found that smoke alarms were absent, defective or missing batteries in 57 out of 87 fatal residential fires in Chicago from 2020 through 2022. In eight of the incidents, investigators were unable to determine whether the alarms had been working.
“If you don’t have working smoke alarms, your awareness that there is a fire is going to be somewhat delayed,” said Lorraine Carli, vice president of outreach and advocacy at the National Fire Protection Association. “And the longer that delay is, the less time you’re going to have to escape — if you can escape at all.”
A new city ordinance now requires property owners who install or replace their smoke alarms to mount detectors built with either a hardwired electrical connection or a sealed internal battery designed to last 10 years, instead of alarms with removable, 9-volt batteries that need to be replaced twice a year. The legislation was designed to decrease the burden on tenants by requiring landlords and homeowners to make sure long-lasting detectors are installed, so renters would not have to change the batteries so frequently.
But the ordinance and a corresponding change in state law have been hobbled by watered-down regulations, sluggish follow-through and inconsistent enforcement, undercutting the city’s efforts to keep families safe from house fires.
A slow-moving law
All Illinois homes have been required since 1988 to be outfitted with working smoke alarms. The law also mandated that new apartment buildings have hardwired detectors and alarms built in. Researchers across the country consistently saw fire deaths plummet in cities that added new smoke alarm regulations, Carli said. A 2021 study by the National Fire Protection Association found that the death rate from U.S. structure fires is 55% lower in properties with working smoke alarms than in homes with no alarms or with alarms that don’t work.
In 2015, advocates from the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance went to Springfield, arguing Illinois’ law was due for an update. Many landlords, they said, were still installing the kind of detector that required tenants to buy a new battery for the alarm every six months.
“Unfortunately, we see a lot of injuries or deaths occur in homes where there’s a smoke alarm on the ceiling, but there’s no battery in there,” said Philip Zaleski, executive director of the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance. “Maybe they took it out and used it for the remote control, or maybe the closest one to the kitchen … was always going off when they were cooking.”
By 2015, cities and states around the country were already starting to push regulations toward a newer, “set-it-and-forget-it” model of portable alarm containing a sealed, tamper-proof battery built to last for 10 years without maintenance. Philadelphia, which has its own legacy of fire tragedies due to a crowded, aging building stock, became an early adopter when it passed an ordinance in 2013 requiring homes to update their detectors.
But when Zaleski and other advocates brought the idea to Springfield in 2015, they hit a wall of opposition — especially from the state’s powerful real estate lobby.
“We were initially strongly opposed to the bill,” Greg St. Aubin, a lobbyist with the Illinois Realtors, said in an interview. “We all care about fire safety, but c’mon now — you’ve got a smoke detector company coming to the General Assembly basically saying, ‘I want you to pass a law that requires everyone in the state to buy a new smoke detector.’”
St. Aubin noted that the older, replaceable-battery detectors typically cost only a few dollars each. Modern, sealed-battery detectors can run $20 or more.
“That can mean the difference of a few less meals for some people,” St. Aubin said.
Advocates for the legislation later returned with a softer proposal. They agreed to a five-year buffer for implementation, so the requirement for modern alarms would not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2023. And even then, property owners would be required to install sealed-battery alarms only after their existing devices, which are designed to last up to 10 years, reached the end of their working lives.
“Our mission was to say, ‘Let’s not do this overnight,’” St. Aubin said. “Let’s have a reasonable period where this technology can seep into the retail marketplace … and if someone has a battery detector that’s still working, there should be no reason to get rid of it.”
The bill signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2017 not only left open the possibility for landlords to keep older alarms in their buildings through 2032 — it also included no requirement for retailers to stop selling the older model of detectors in 2023.
“I wish it would have gone into effect sooner, but I understand the need for us to do it gradually,” said former state Rep. Kathleen Willis (D-Addison), who sponsored the bill in the House. “We knew fire departments had stockpiles of thousands of the battery-operated ones. We didn’t want those to go to waste.”
The Chicago Fire Department successfully pushed for the city to be exempted from the law.
Department leaders said they feared the higher price tag on the sealed-battery detectors could deter some landlords and homeowners, according to Fire Department spokesperson Larry Langford.
“Our reasoning was, any UL-approved detector is better than no detector,” Langford wrote in a statement. “Looking at what money you must invest, the cost of 20 dollars per unit may cause you to hold off despite any reality about long-term savings” from not having to replace the battery.
Getting Chicago on board
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) kicked off his second term in the City Council with a 2019 proposal to close the Chicago loophole and bring the city into the jurisdiction of the updated smoke alarm law.
“We were two years behind (the rest of the state) and we had some concerns, because we saw that there were fires that were predominantly happening in low-income housing and in apartment buildings,” Villegas said. “So we just wanted to bring everyone into uniform (rules).”
The alderperson again ran into pushback from the Chicago Fire Department. Department leaders argued the switch-up would disrupt the fire department’s regular practice of giving away cheap, replaceable-battery detectors in the city neighborhoods.
Officials were “concerned that due to the cost being four times higher, CFD might not be able to get as many units as before to distribute to the public for free,” Langford wrote in his statement.
But disrupting the giveaways of outdated detectors was part of the plan, Villegas said.
“We hand the constituent a 99-cent smoke detector, but we don’t know if it gets installed properly — or gets installed, period,” Villegas said. “In some instances, there’s been fires, and they find these smoke detectors that have been given out sitting on the kitchen table or in a drawer.”
Villegas’ ordinance cleared the City Council Zoning Committee in March 2020. But when it reached the full City Council at a virtual meeting the next month, members took turns airing misgivings about the measure following a fresh round of lobbying from fire department leaders.
“It’s disheartening that the (fire) department we all rely on does not support this,” Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said at the April 24 meeting. “This ordinance is going to add an undue burden on our taxpayers and senior citizens who are trying to make ends meet. Why are we making them buy detectors that are more expensive?”
After seven other alderpeople raised similar objections, Villegas agreed to shelve the ordinance.
It would be another year until Fire Department leaders softened their opposition after the ordinance was tweaked to ensure that no property owner would be fined for providing an older-model smoke alarm until 2033.
The compromise ordinance, which the City Council ultimately approved in February 2021, declared that any new alarms installed in apartments after Jan. 1, 2022, would have to include tamper-proof batteries. The rule would kick in one year later for homeowners.
It also doubled the fine for smoke alarm violations from $500 to $1,000 per offense for homeowners, and from $1,000 to $2,000 for apartment landlords.
Chicago firefighters continued to hand out detachable-battery alarms until Jan. 1 of this year, Langford said. That means the fire department provided the devices for a full year after they were no longer legal to install in apartment units.
Firefighters target single-family homeowners for smoke detector giveaways and pass out “educational materials” instead when they visit “large apartment buildings,” Langford wrote in an email.
The tougher regulations soon ran into a new problem. Without a concerted education campaign by the city, the new rules hit the books on New Year’s Day without many landlords and retailers even knowing.
Uneven regulations, little public outreach
Late last year, Steve Shah took a trip to Costco to buy some replacement smoke alarms for the buildings he owns. His properties, located mostly in the Rogers Park and West Ridge neighborhoods, comprise about 80 rental units, ranging from single-family homes to 20-unit courtyard buildings.
Shah said he saw a range of portable alarms for sale, including hard-wired detectors, modern sealed-battery detectors and cheaper devices with slots for 9-volt batteries. After weighing his options, he sprang for the sealed detectors.
“I’m glad I did, because I had no idea about this new law,” Shah said in a December interview. “I have a lot of conversations with folks who own as little as one or as many as 1,000 units, and I believe most people don’t know about it.”
Shah, who is active in two Chicago landlord associations, said: “I’m part of a very small subset of property owners who are really engaged on these kinds of discussions. If it’s not cascading through neighborhood groups, how is everyone else supposed to know about it?
“This is serious — I can be found at fault if something goes wrong,” he added. “Ignorance is no excuse.”
St. Aubin said legislators and lobbyists planned in 2017 to launch aggressive public awareness campaigns, but he acknowledged that the follow-through hasn’t materialized.
Groups such as the Illinois Association of Realtors “would be doing education if there were a significant amount of chatter about this, but from our landlords at least, we haven’t been hearing about it because most are already in compliance,” St. Aubin said.
A previous version of the bill would have banned Illinois stores from selling smoke alarms that need frequent battery replacements, according to Willis, the law’s sponsor. But she and other legislators took it out at the real estate lobby’s behest.
“Banning the sale was just never going to happen,” St. Aubin recalled of the statehouse negotiations. “These are national retail chains we’re talking about. It would be a mess if they had to have 50 different kinds of smoke detectors all over the country.”
Two years later, in 2019, New York City banned the sale of removable-battery smoke detectors. And the Chicago ordinance passed in 2021 included a ban on the sale of the old devices.
St. Aubin said he was confident that retailers would “naturally” transition to the newer model of smoke alarms.
“I’m sure the thinking at the time was that we would monitor it, but to be honest I’m not sure how much of that was done,” the lobbyist said. “It would be interesting to see if you could even still find any of the dinosaurs still out there.”
Illinois Answers reporters went to 10 hardware stores across Chicago and its suburbs, including locally owned shops and national chains, one week after the new regulations went into effect in January. Removable-battery detectors were displayed on sale at four of the stores, including two in Chicago, where those sales are prohibited by law.
On Jan. 4, Villegas held a news conference at City Hall alongside Zaleski of the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance and Illinois State Fire Marshal Dale Simpson to promote the new ordinance taking effect.
“We encourage everyone not to wait to go ahead and make the changeover to these new alarms,” Zaleski said at the news conference. “Do that now for your homes and your families to be safe going forward.”
Four reporters attended the media event, including two from the Illinois Answers Project.
No representatives of the Chicago Fire Department were present.
The low-key event was emblematic of the muted communication from city officials, and especially from the fire department, about the new smoke detector rules.
“Our public education unit spreads the word, as we also do using our media accounts such as Twitter and Facebook,” Langford of the Chicago Fire Department wrote in his statement to Illinois Answers and the Tribune.
The fire department’s Twitter account, which has more than 87,000 followers and typically posts multiple times a day with updates on various fire events around the city, made no mention of the new law taking effect on New Year’s Day. In a tweet sent Jan. 1, the department merely urged residents to “choose a 10-year sealed battery alarm” when they need to buy a new device.
After Philadelphia passed its 2013 ordinance mandating the switch to sealed-battery detectors, that city’s fire department launched a series of programs to make sure the newer models were being installed in homes across the city.
Between 2017 and 2019, the Philadelphia Fire Department installed more than 36,000 modern, sealed-battery alarms in people’s homes, plus more than 3,000 “adaptive alarms” designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing residents. In 2022 alone, the department installed more than 27,000 alarms — all for free, and all in response to requests from residents.
The department employs three “around-the-clock community action teams that do nothing but survivor support, install smoke alarms and conduct fire safety checks,” said Adam Thiel, who has been commissioner of the Philadelphia Fire Department since 2016.
“All they need to do is call 311, and we go out there and install them,” Thiel said. “It’s not a giveaway — we don’t just hand them to people. We go in, do a fire safety check and install the smoke alarms to make sure they’re installed properly and in the right places.
“If you have a brand-new smoke alarm sitting under your bed or in a drawer, it’s not going to work as designed,” he added.
While the Chicago Fire Department has created a program allowing seniors to request alarm installations, most of its service remains focused on handing out smoke detectors — especially after fatal fires, Langford said.
As recently as June 2022, days after the West Humboldt Park fire that claimed the lives of four children, firefighters were handing out detachable-battery alarms to neighbors on the Potomac Avenue block, multiple residents recalled.
“The fire department has come here before, even before the fire, giving out these detectors,” said Ariel Garcia, 55, who lives on the block. “I just don’t know what people are doing with them.”
After the fire, investigators swept through the burned-out remains of the basement apartment and found no evidence of a working smoke alarm on a wall or ceiling, according to Chicago Fire Department records obtained by the Illinois Answers Project.
They did find alarms on the first and second floor of the building that sounded during the fire. Another was found in the basement common area — outside the apartment where the four children were trapped and suffocating — stored in a crate.
“A detector was present in the unit, but it either had no battery, or the battery was dead,” Langford said. “In this case, you can’t say the landlord was at fault for not mounting the unit. The liability was with the tenant, because the tenant is responsible for replacing the battery.”
Contacted by reporters, a representative of the landlord declined to discuss the fire or conditions in the building. Efforts to reach the mother of the four children were not successful.
At the end of the block where the children lived is the Children’s Garden of Hope, managed by Maura Madden. She recalled that the children played for countless hours in the park during the summer – including on the evening before the fire.
“I was down there for probably six hours and they were down there just making mud pies and playing with spiders,” Madden said.
They talked in Spanish and gleefully threw spiders at her, she said. At night, she sent them home.
“Go home, a la casa,” she told them.
More than six months later, four crosses leaned against a fence that surrounds the garden. Various messages were etched into the white wood, most of them in children’s handwriting.
“Descansen en paz angelitos de Dios,” read one in Spanish. It means: “Rest in peace, God’s little angels.”
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This story is a collaboration between the Chicago Tribune and the Illinois Answers Project, a nonpartisan investigations and solutions journalism news organization, published by the Better Government Association. Alex Nitkin and Kelli Duncan are reporters with the Illinois Answers Project; Adriana Pérez is a Chicago Tribune reporter.