Ask the AHJ: Chicago

By Brian Rhodes, Published Jan 23, 2014, 12:00am EST

The AHJ has the final say in access control systems. That power, combined with the rules not always being clear, makes integrators and users necessarily concerned about their decisions.

In this note, the first of a series, we interview the AHJ in Chicago and ask them to give us inside details on how the approval process works.

The Requirement

The City of Chicago has a comprehensive municipal building code that in many instances clarifies, embellishes, or supercedes national codes. Several examples of this directly affects electronic access control, such as:

"No electronic locking system shall be installed or operated without the prior approval of the deputy commissioner in charge of the bureau of fire prevention. No approval shall be given until the plans for such system have been reviewed and the operation of such system tested by representatives of the bureau of fire prevention." - Excerpt from Chicago Municipal Code (13-160-261)

According to this code, all access control systems must have the approval of the Fire Department before being installed or operated. So does this mean the Chicago FD approves all designs? We called to find out.

Chicago's Various AHJs

In talking with CFD, commissioner approval has been granted a transfer of responsibility. In practice, approvals are based on the initial review of the electrical inspector as part of the permit process [link no longer available]. Essentially, rather than granting design approvals up front, the Deputy Fire Commissioner instead yields to Building Inspectors and inspects when the job is completed.

We then spoke with Chicago's Electrical Inspector's office to complete the loop, who then explained the best person to answer Access Control inspection questions was the Chief Electrical Inspector - a position recently vacated and currently unfilled in city government. As a result, most inspection work relates to high-voltage utility and subsystems and access control falls into a grey area of 'low voltage' electrical work viewed as low priority.

Key Feedback

During discussions with the inspector's office, it became clear actual approval workflow depends on the location of the project, whether or not union trades are involved, and the backlog of inspection work. 

  • Access Not Critical: Overall concern with the life safety of access is low. The inspector we spoke with does not inspect any access work, and he was unsure which of the inspectors does access inspections. He did not expect this to change until a new Chief Electrical Inspector is named, or the issue becomes a priority to address.
  • Fire IS Critical: According to this inspector, fire suppression systems and fire alarms have the highest priority of all life/safety/security systems. This is due to fire systems being included in almost every building, while EAC is much more infrequent.
  • Project Size Matters: In short, small installs may never be field inspected. The overall size of the project greatly influences internal visibility with other inspection disciplines, and 'big' projects are more likely to be viewed.
  • We're Understaffed: Budget cuts have impacted many city services, including the inspectors. Our contact was adamant explaining that "work was being done as expected", but staffing limitations have slowed the process and a backlog exists.
  • Familiarity Counts: The systems deemed 'highest risk' for review are performed by non-local contractors. For contractors with well known, familiar reputations, who are members of the local IBEW union, more trust exists. Out of state contractors face scrutiny because their work quality and practices are unknown.
  • Complaints bring Heat: Above all else, public concerns carry the most weight. If a concerned citizen dials '311', they can draw attention to life/safety risks in a building. While this option is available, this inspector could not recall any concern reported surrounding access control egress issues.

1 report cite this report:

Low Voltage Codes and Video Surveillance on May 22, 2014
Even 'low voltage' electrical work can be dangerous. Because of that, there...
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