The morning of May 12, 1996, was full of promise at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. It was Mother’s Day, and families were gathering to celebrate with their soon-to-be-alumni children on the day of the University of North Carolina’s spring commencement.

But it was also the day that five UNC students died in an early-morning blaze at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house.

In the aftermath, the city of Chapel Hill mandated that all Greek houses be fitted with life-saving sprinkler systems.

Four years later, New Jersey passed a similar law for both off-campus structures like Greek houses and on-campus housing in the wake of a Jan. 19, 2000 fire that killed three Seton Hall University students. The law, which covered the entire state, also provided funding for the installation of sprinkler systems.

Columbia, Mo., Lawrence, Kan. and State College, Penn. – homes to some of the largest Greek systems in the country – have also required their Greek houses to implement sprinklers.

Here in Ann Arbor, though, only four of the University’s sorority houses and three of its fraternity houses have sprinkler systems, according to Ann Arbor Fire Inspector Doug Warsinski.

Two of the 18 student deaths that have occurred on or near college campuses since Aug. 1 have taken place in Greek houses. According to Ed Comeau, publisher of the monthly newsletter Campus Firewatch and a former director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, this academic year has been the deadliest for students since his organization began collecting data in January of 2000.

Of the 107 total fire deaths that Campus Firewatch has tallied over the last seven years, 10 of them have been in Greek housing.

Since 1971, there have been 71 fire fatalities in fraternities compared with just one fire death in a sorority house at universities around the country, Warsinski said.

“Overall, they’re not that common,” Warsinski said of fraternity and sorority fires. “But when they do happen, they bring a lot of national attention from the press to the (fire) department, the university.”

Warsinski said fraternity fires typically cause multiple deaths, killing three, four or five members.

Comeau said that there are two major insurance organizations that handle policies for Greek houses. Indianapolis-based M-J Insurance insures sororities and HRH/Kirklan & Co. in Omaha, Neb. insures fraternities. Comeau said that while both companies are working to outfit all Greek houses around the nation with sprinklers, M-J Insurance has been more aggressive in outfitting sororities.

“There seems to be more sororities installing sprinkler systems than fraternities, which is ironic because since we’ve started tracking them all of the fatal fires have occurred in fraternities than in sororities,” Comeau said.

Ann Arbor building code classifies Greek houses in the same category as apartments and residence halls, and it requires that all new structures install sprinkler systems during construction, Warsinski said. But existing buildings, like Greek houses, are exempt from this code unless they undergo a significant renovation.

Warsinski estimated that the cost of outfitting an average-size Greek house with sprinklers would cost a little over $56,000. Installing a sprinkler system in the largest Greek house could cost as much as $100,000.

He added that it’s more common for sorority houses to be retrofitted with sprinkler systems.

“Fraternities generally have no money,” Warsinski said. “Sororities have larger reserves.”

The affordability argument is a familiar one to Comeau. He said that in almost each city where a sprinkler system mandate for Greek houses has been proposed, fraternities have argued that installing a sprinkler system would put them out of business. In State College, home of Penn State University, Comeau said that city officials responded by criticizing fraternities for spending up to $1,500 on weekend parties and replacing the wood floors in their houses every two years because of the damage caused by these parties.

“The argument that ‘We can’t afford it’ is fallacious,” Comeau said.

In December, the University’s housing security office recognized the need for a fire-education program that would specifically benefit the Greek system, said Declan Lugin, a captain and fire inspector with the University’s Housing Security division. It applied for a Homeland Security Assistance to Firefighters grant, but it ultimately failed to qualify for the funding because the University isn’t involved in any actual fire fighting.

So far, the only program that has been put in place is one that provides Greek houses with batteries for their smoke detectors, a program that Lugin himself said he isn’t thrilled with. He said providing Greek houses with smoke detectors would not be effective because it does not guarantee that houses ever install them.

Lugin said that the City of Ann Arbor already works with the Greek system to improve fire safety and fire prevention measures but said Housing Security would like to “fill in the gaps” of the program whenever possible.

The close contact between the Ann Arbor Fire Department and the Greek system began in earnest in January of 2006 following an incident at the Sigma Nu fraternity house on Oxford Street. Responding to the house’s alarm system, firefighters found an ongoing party. The house’s windows were blocked, and the front door was only partially open. A smoke machine was running inside. The alarm was sounding, but the partygoers weren’t evacuating.

“The conditions were so egregious that had a fire been actually occurring most people wouldn’t have made it out,” Warsinski said.

After the incident Warsinski, inspected a total of 28 houses this fall.

City code requires that all apartments and Greek houses be inspected every 30 months, but Warsinksi said that the inspections sometimes take 36 months to complete due to staffing constraints.

Both Warsinski and Comeau agreed that the greatest fire hazard at fraternity houses are their parties.

“Twenty-year-old male bravado, lots of alcohol, old wood-frame construction, disabled smoke detectors and fire alarm systems, usually due to parties and smoking,” Warsinski said. “Unfortunately, the Animal House culture has attracted more people of that mindset.”

Warsinski said that other fire hazards facing Greek houses include destruction by house members – holes in the walls can allow fires to spread quickly – and a disregard for maintenance, such as allowing garbage bags to pile up inside the house, which creates a fire hazard.

Warsinski’s plan for developing a fire safety education program includes involvement with the alumni who often oversee individual chapters. He believes it’s most important to educate the alumni so they can alert new students to issues of fire safety and other dangers.

He said that some fraternities on campus have already taken steps to improve the overall condition and safety of their houses, explaining that some have live-in graduate students who oversee the daily operations of the chapter. Others are professionally managed by a local property manager who handles problems the house may face.

Warsinski also said he wants to appoint student fire marshals in each house who would be responsible for house safety issues.

Comeau’s greatest concern is educating students who live in off-campus housing.

“We know students are going to drink, we know students are going to use candles, we know students are going to smoke,” Comeau said. “We’re not saying, ‘Don’t do these things.’ We’re saying, ‘Do them responsibly.’ Don’t circumvent safety measures so that when a cigarette fire does break out, it doesn’t kill people because a fire door was open.”

Interfraternity Council spokesman Evan Waters said the IFC tries to work in conjunction with the risk management policies of each individual fraternity’s national office, putting its faith in each chapter president to enforce safety measures within the houses.

The Office of Greek Life has no record of the last major fire in a Greek house and estimates that it occurred before 2000.

Waters, who lives in the Chi Psi house on State Street, said each sleeping room in his house is outfitted with smoke detectors and there are fire extinguishers on each floor. The house also appoints a “lodge manager” responsible for the overall maintenance of the house.

The Office of Greek Life tries to use fire tragedies on other campuses to educate fraternities and sororities about fire prevention, said assistant director Chris Haughee.

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