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Pritzker signs Medicaid reform

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks with reporters Monday during a news conference in Chicago after signing a Medicaid reform package into law. Behind him are House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, and Maria Villalon, a Medicaid recipient. 

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois kennels are now required to be staffed at all times, or have sprinkler systems or alarms that ring at the local firehouse, a response to the DuPage County kennel fire earlier this year that claimed the lives of 29 dogs.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the bill into law Tuesday. It took effect immediately.

"This just turned into some very commonsense legislation that will give pet owners a much higher degree of comfort when they have to leave their pets behind," said one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Don DeWitte, R-St. Charles.

The law combines ideas put forth by DeWitte and Rep. Diane Pappas, D-Itasca, who introduced separate kennel fire safety bills weeks after the Jan. 14 blaze at Bully Life Animal Services, just outside of West Chicago.

The fire started several hours after owner Garrett Mercado left to hang out with a friend, investigators said. The cause of the fire remains undetermined.

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Mercado arrived soon after the fire began and injured himself trying to get some of the dogs out of the small structure where they were being housed in cages. DuPage County prosecutors last month charged Mercado with animal cruelty, saying he kept dogs in inhumane conditions and "failed miserably" in his duties as a kennel owner.

The kennel property had working fire alarms but no one there to hear them, officials said. The bill is meant to ensure that situation doesn't recur.

"This commonsense law will protect pets from senseless tragedies and further our state's commitment to animal welfare," Pritzker said in a statement. "We're putting safety first and making sure the tragedy that West Chicago experienced in January will never happen again."

The Illinois Department of Agriculture will now ask about staffing and fire safety systems during kennel inspections. Local fire inspectors who find no sprinklers or alarms are encouraged to notify the department, which can take further action.

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Kennel owners told the Tribune when the bills were proposed that requiring better alarms systems was a good idea, though some worried about the expense. Pappas said one compromise was to allow residential-grade fire alarms instead of the expensive commercial systems.

"As long as the alarm automatically triggers when there's a detection of a problem, that's all we need," she said.

She added that the new law should also protect firefighters and other first responders. Several were injured during the kennel fire when dogs they were trying to free attacked them in a panic.

"The sooner we can get first responders there, the better off we'll be," she said.

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