Municipal fire-monitoring fight continues in Illinois

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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill.—Another front in the battle in Illinois over public entities monopolizing fire alarm monitoring opened up recently when the village of Westmont approved an ordinance requiring all businesses to connect their fire alarms to its emergency dispatch center.

Kevin Lehan, executive director of the Illinois Electronic Security Association, based here, told Security Systems News, “The IESA disagrees with any ordinance that makes requirements as to where an alarm system is monitored. … It’s unfortunate that some government bodies are unwilling to allow the free market to determine who gets business in those towns.”

In early March, the Westmont Village Board approved a new ordinance requiring all businesses “to install and have operational fire detection and wireless alarm systems that connect business properties with the Westmont emergency dispatch center in Downers Grove” by June 30, according to the village’s website. The ordinance allows businesses to apply for a phased-in approach that give them more time—until June 30, 2014—to fully comply with the ordinance.

A separate requirement of the ordinance is that downtown businesses in the village, a Chicago suburb, also have to install fire sprinkler systems by June 1, 2015.

The requirements are an update of a similar ordinance approved in 2009, but which had been put on hold for three years because of concerns about installation costs. But village trustees said it was time to act to protect public safety, according to a Chicago Tribune story. Businesses in violation of the new ordinance face fines of $750 per day.

The Tribune reported March 25 that 65 businesses in Westmont had not installed mandatory wireless fire alarm systems, while 550 buildings had.

The IESA has been in the forefront of a years-long battle in this state by alarm companies over what they contend are unlawful efforts by public entities to take over fire alarm monitoring.

It was back in 2009 when the Lisle-Woodridge Fire District approved an ordinance requiring businesses there to terminate the fire-alarm monitoring contracts they had with private alarm companies and contract only with the district to use its wireless radio network. ADT and other alarm companies sued, claiming the public fire district, also located near Chicago, was creating an illegal monopoly.

A judge ended up ruling in 2011 that the district can’t require private businesses to contract only with the district for fire alarm monitoring and that it can’t ban the companies from contracting with private central stations meeting approved codes and standards.

However, that order is not yet final because the fire district, which has contended its network is safer, has appealed it.

Also, even if the ruling were final, it wouldn’t apply directly to Westmont. Lehan explained that’s because “Westmont is a fire department and a fire department is a different animal from a fire protection district,” like Lisle-Woodridge.

While fire protection districts in Illinois are controlled by the state Legislature, fire departments are “a home rule unit,” with more authority over decisions they make, Lehan said.

However, he expects a judge will eventually rule in the Lisle-Woodridge case “whether the overall concept of mandated municipal monitoring is a monopoly.” If the court finds it is an illegal monopoly—as alarm companies contend it is—that could impact Westmont’s ordinance, Lehan said.