Fraternities, sororities work to improve fire safety
Only 11 houses currently have sprinkler systems.
By Sam Wilson
Many of MU’s fraternities and sororities have five years to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to equip their houses with sprinkler systems, thanks to a new Columbia City Council ordinance.
Debbie Sorrell, of the Columbia Fire Marshals, said five of the 13 sorority houses on campus have a full sprinkler system, but none of the six sorority annexes have sprinklers. Six of the 25 fraternity houses have sprinklers, as does one of three annexes. The houses and annexes that do not have sprinklers fall under the ordinance and are required to fully install them.
Sorrell said some houses have partially installed sprinkler systems, but exact figures were unavailable for partial systems, which vary in size.
Sigma Nu fraternity President Jacob Long said his chapter, whose house does not have sprinklers, is uncertain about how it will pay for the sprinklers, which are expected to cost between $125,000 and $150,000.
“Financially, it’s putting us into trouble,” he said.
Long’s chapter has sent letters to alumni asking for contributions. He said the plan is to install sprinklers while completing other renovations in the summer of 2008.
“It’s all up in the air right now,” he said.
Long said he feels the sprinklers are unnecessary, as there are few fraternity house deaths.
Chris Mabie, president of the UM-St. Louis Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity chapter, disagrees.
His chapter house was engulfed in a fire in December, and chapter member Brian Schlittler died when he couldn’t escape the house. Mabie said his chapter will install sprinklers in its new house, but the old house did not have them.
Although he doesn’t completely support the ordinance, Mabie said he does support the sprinklers.“If they can afford it, I’d definitely say it’s worth it,” he said.
Charles Roberts, president of the MU chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity said his chapter will install sprinklers as part of a major renovation.
“I definitely am going to feel safer with a sprinkler system because a lot of houses are a bit sketchy in the way fires are handled,” he said.
Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity President Andrew Howard said the ordinance doesn’t affect his chapter. The fraternity had sprinklers installed in its house when it was built in 2001.
Howard said his chapter’s members feel safer now with the sprinklers in place.
“It does take a little worry away,” he said.
“It is nice to have a security blanket.”Chi Omega sorority President Kristin Lamvik said the ordinance is a blessing in disguise. She said her chapter is in the process of planning to build a new house, and this ordinance might lead to more alumni donations. Although she said she feels a sorority house is safer than a fraternity house and her house already has a good fire safety procedure, she said she thinks the sprinklers will help.
“I can see why it’s useful,” she said. “In a crisis situation, it would be good to have.”
Delta Chi fraternity President Robby Berlin said his chapter is focused on raising the money necessary to install sprinklers. The price is estimated at around $100,000. He said this process has other chapters considering drastic possibilities.
“I think a lot of houses are talking about bulldozing and starting over,” Berlin said.
Delta Sigma Phi fraternity President Brydan McNeely said his chapter is among those considering a new house. Retrofitting sprinklers into the current house would be cheaper, but he said the members of the fraternity want to build a new one.“It would almost be more cost effective,” he said.
McNeely said his fraternity’s alumni are reluctant to embrace the idea of a new home.
“As we get a little closer, I think we’re going to see a shift toward building a new house,” he said.
The financial burden on the chapters could be eased if pending federal legislation is passed. U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, has re-introduced legislation that would allow chapters to apply for federal grants to fund sprinkler systems.
“The records indicate that there needs to be improvement,” she said.
Tubb Jones was unable to provide a figure as to how much money the grants would provide.
According to a study published by the U.S. Fire Administration in November 2001, there are an average of 150 fraternity and sorority fires each year. These fires claim an average of 10 injuries or deaths and $2.1 million in property damage.
The report states eight students died in two fraternity house fires at Bloomsburg University in 1994 and 2000. One fire caused five deaths and the other three.
In 2005, the U.S. Fire Administration estimated there were 350 fires in Greek houses nationwide. They have record of one injury and no deaths.The study listed arson as the most common cause for Greek house fires. Open flame and cooking were a close second and third.
Tubbs Jones’ legislation would also make a sprinkler system donation to a chapter tax deductible.
“Anytime you provide a tax incentive to people, they are more likely to donate,” she said.
Tubbs Jones has introduced similar legislation in the past, but she said it has failed because others in Congress are not supportive of the loss of government revenue.
Zeta Tau Alpha sorority member Shannon Ferguson went to Capitol Hill in support of the legislation. Her chapter already has sprinklers, but she said she was representing more than just her sorority.
“It wasn’t about just going for my chapter,” Ferguson said. “It was for the entire MU campus.”
Ferguson said the legislation is an opportunity to equalize chapters and universities that already can receive tax-deductible donations.
“I think it was an important cause to put not-for-profit organizations on the same playing field,” she said.
Ferguson went to Capitol Hill with the Capital Fraternal Caucus, a group that campaigns representing Greek chapters nationwide.
Battalion Chief Steve Sapp of the Columbia Fire Marshals is the man behind the ordinance in Columbia. He said he likes the way the ordinance is written because it fits somewhere in the middle as far as the amount of time similar ordinances have given their constituents in other cities.
One of the controversies surrounding Sapp’s handling of the ordinance is over what type of system to install. The ordinance does not specify which of two types to use. Typically, when an engineer designs a sprinkler system for a non-residential structure, he or she designs the system to protect property. Sprinklers are put in all rooms and small closets.
When a residential system is designed, it is designed to protect lives, not just property. Sprinklers are left out of smaller rooms where people are unlikely to be. This makes a residential system less expensive.
Although members of the Greek community have suggested making the residential system explicitly permitted in the ordinance, Sapp is reluctant to change the ordinance.“I’m hesitant to do that because there are different spaces in a fraternity house or a sorority house,” Sapp said. “There’s obviously the sleeping rooms which comprise a residential, which we know comprise a lot of the building. But there’s also sometimes large meeting rooms, gathering rooms or dining rooms, kitchens and so forth, and a 13-(residential) system may not be appropriate there.”
Sapp said though the City Council has asked that he further discuss the ordinance with his constituents, he is generally happy with it.
“I don’t really think that the ordinance is crafted badly,” he said. “I think that people have some questions, and they’re wanting to know some direction right now. And we’re certainly prepared to help them with that direction, and that’s something that we stressed from the very start — that this is more of a partnership.”
But Sapp’s view of the process as a partnership is not unanimous. At meetings with Sapp, Larry Schuster, a member of Alpha Gamma Sigma fraternity’s housing corporation, said there was a lack of communication on Sapp’s part before the ordinance was proposed.
“It’s kind of hard for it to be a partnership when they do all the demanding,” Schuster said. “They did such a poor job of getting people involved. He totally failed to involve the constituency.”
Schuster said the ordinance mandates an unnecessary expenditure.
“Firemen always believe that there is no expense that should not be spared for one life,” he said. “Following that logic, we should park every vehicle, every bicycle, we should never ride horses, we shouldn’t even have fire trucks because people get killed on fire trucks.”