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A petition pushes for more fire safety at apartments in Normal

Normal Fire Truck

A recent Illinois State University graduate is pushing for fire safety at apartments in Normal.

Claire Wagner says she created an online petition after realizing her home didn’t have a fire extinguisher or sprinkler system installed.

The petition on Change.org is calling on the Normal Town Council to require local student apartment companies to provide fire extinguishers in apartment dwellings that do not have a sprinkler system. The petition has over 500 signatures.

Wagner said it wasn’t until she almost experienced an accident in her apartment that she realized she didn’t have an extinguisher.

“We had something fly a little too close to the light and it started sparking. And I think that the only difference between me and my neighbors and what could have been something like the Sugar Creek Apartments is that the spark didn't travel. We looked for the fire extinguisher we didn't find it and thankfully nothing spread,” said Wagner.

She says she asked her neighbors and friends, before realizing they didn’t have fire extinguishers or sprinkler systems either. Wagner says she knew this was a major safety hazard.

Matt Swaney, public information officer from the Normal Fire Department, says apartment buildings are required to have different fire protections based on when they were built.

“If the building is ever remodeled or has a major renovation done, then they have to bring it up to the current code, whatever that may be at the time. So, depending on where you live and how old the building is that you live in, you may or may not have fire sprinklers. You may or may not have a fire alarm system or things like that,” said Swaney.

Swaney says buildings are required to maintain these fire protections and they are inspected annually to ensure they are safe.

Wagner says she spoke at a Normal Town Council meeting and has been in contact with council member Chemberly Cummings. However, she does not expect any major changes soon.

“My main goal was to get as much attention as possible, just so students are aware that they are lacking basic fire safety in their apartments,” said Wagner. “I want people to know that that is a big issue, considering that we're all college students. We’re learning how to cook and stuff like that. So, I think that it is not as much about the numbers of the petition, but as much as awareness as possible.”

The Bloomington-Normal Tenants Union also included "required fire extinguishers for all rental units" on its recent list of lobbying agenda items.

Tate Skinner from the Union says they placed it on the agenda after being approached by Wagner. However, he says the group is still setting plans into motion.

"We're still kind of organizing it. We just actually switched out one of the parts of the plant with something else. But we're kind of trying to figure out what's going on," Skinner says.

What firefighters recommend

Swaney emphasizes the best thing to do if a fire occurs is to close the door to that room and call 911.

“That's what we really want to reiterate to people. If there's a fire in the building, the best thing you can do is get outside and get us on the way as fast as you can,” said Swaney. “The longer the fire grows, the more it's going to cause damage, and the spread of smoke is going to cause damage. There's the more likelihood that you could get injured or killed trying to get back.”

Swaney warns if tenants want to have a fire extinguisher, they can, but to not let it be a false sense of security.

“As far as other alternatives, if you have a fire on the stovetop, the best thing you can do is put a lid over the fire and turn the heat down. Once the stuff on the stove cools back down, the fire will not reignite. Put the lid on it and forget ever taking that lid off until we have a chance to come and check it.”

Wagner says she plans to continue reaching out to other council members but does not have a definitive plan of action.

She advises students and local residents to continue considering safety moving forward.

“I think that although you may want to buy your own fire extinguisher, that is a brilliant idea. I'm making this petition because we can't guarantee that our neighbors will,” said Wagner. “And by regulating it we can ensure that everyone has the same amount of safety in their apartment and I don't have to worry or you don't have to worry about someone burning through your wall.”

As far as fire safety, Swaney says one of the biggest issues they deal with is unattended cooking. He emphasizes the importance of not getting distracted while cooking and staying in the kitchen. Another big issue they deal with is candles. He advises to always blow them out or switch to candle warmers to not worry about open flames.

Maritza Navar-Lopez is a student reporting intern at WGLT. She joined the newsroom in 2021.