Thursday, October 13, 2011

Zeta Psi House at Tulane Burns for 5th Time

Tulane University neighbors fired up after fraternity house

By John Pope, The Times-Picayune

When fire devastated the Zeta Psi house on Broadway early Sunday, it marked the fifth time a fraternity house had gone up in flames in the university area since Hurricane Katrina. Even though fire officials say the blazes appear unrelated and don't signal a larger problem, the president of the local neighborhood association has had enough.

"It's time for Tulane to look into whether it should have these off-campus fraternities at all," said Tommy Milliner, president of Maple Area Residents Inc. "It may be private property, but Tulane doesn't have to sanction off-campus fraternities. ... This is something now that we seriously have to look into, having a dialogue with Tulane."

Because the fraternity houses are privately owned, Tulane is limited in what it can do, said Mike Hogg, Tulane University's vice president for student affairs.

But the university does require that each of the 18 fraternity houses affiliated with the school be inspected annually by the state fire marshal's office and that they have smoke detectors, he said. These visits occur around this time of year, Hogg said, adding that all the houses passed last year.

That provides no consolation to Milliner, whose organization's members live around the fraternity houses that line Broadway between St. Charles Avenue and Plum Street.

"The proof is in the pudding," he said, "and in this case, it's a flaming figgy pudding."

While inspections might turn up problems such as defective wiring, which was blamed for the January 2007 fire at the Kappa Alpha house, they can't stop college students from doing what college students do at parties, which can include setting fire to furniture or passing out while smoking.

It also doesn't prevent students from hanging elaborate and flammable party decorations both inside and outside the houses, as was the case at the Zeta Psi house, make fighting a fire difficult.

That fire happened after a Halloween party, for which the house had been draped in black tarps that were difficult to distinguish from doors, New Orleans Fire Department Capt. Edwin Holmes said. An NOFD captain was injured after he and another firefighter fell through the floor.

No students have been killed or injured in any of the frat house fires -- yet.

"It's really surprising, given the number of the fires and the fact that they happen at odd hours of the night," said Keith Hardie, the residents association's vice president.

The first fire of this series struck the Alpha Delta Gamma house at Freret and Audubon streets early on Jan. 11, 2006. No one was living at the house because it had neither gas nor electricity.

That fraternity is affiliated with Loyola University. Loyola had banned off-campus housing for Greek groups before the fire, but the house was grandfathered in because it existed when the rule went into effect, spokesman Matt Lambert said.

All of the other fires happened at Tulane fraternity houses.

The next two went up in flames a few days apart in 2007: the Kappa Alpha house, at 1036 Audubon St., on Jan. 1, and the Zeta Beta Tau house, at 1006 Broadway, five days later.

Both houses were empty because the fires occurred during Christmas vacation.

The fourth fire was at the Kappa Sigma house at 642 Broadway on April 29, 2008. A couch caught fire, and flames spread to the roof, spokesman Greg Davis said then. Thomas said that fire could have been touched off by "discarded smoking materials."

The Kappa Alpha fire is the only blaze for which the Fire Department has pinpointed a cause: a short circuit. The causes of the others are officially undetermined, Thomas said.

Before the Zeta Psi fire, Hogg said his office was negotiating with the fraternities' national office to determine the feasibility of installing a sprinkler system in each house. If that proved too costly, the university proposed having the groups sign up with an alarm company to monitor the houses and summon firefighters if a blaze breaks out.

But Milliner said more drastic action may need to be taken, and his group is looking into proposed zoning changes for the area.

"The city has proposed zoning changes in the latest land-use plans which would preserve (fraternity houses') status," he said. "This would allow the fraternity houses to continue and would allow more of them. We think the zoning should be more restrictive."

The deadline for comments on the plan is Nov. 1.

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