Members of some fraternities and sororities on campus have been getting a bit of a startling study break recently.
As part of a new initiative to educate residents of fraternity and sorority houses at the University, fire safety officials from the Washtenaw County Chapter of the American Red Cross and the Ann Arbor Fire Department have been visiting the houses and conducting surprise fire simulations.
The fire drills and feedback sessions are part of a recent collaboration between the Red Cross, the AAFD and the University’s Office of Greek Life to test Greek houses’ ability to evacuate safely in case of an emergency.
Jim Rampton, community disaster education coordinator for the Washtenaw County Chapter of the American Red Cross, said the initiative was developed because of the 2008 fire at the Delta Upsilon fraternity house. In May 2008, the house, located at 1331 Hill Street, caught fire, destroying a large portion of the structure.
After conducting some research, Rampton said he concluded that the Greek community is at “high risk” when it comes to fire danger.
According to a 2009 Federal Emergency Agency report on fires in on- and off-campus housing at universities, fraternity and sorority house fires account for a small portion of the total number of fires that occur at colleges across the country. However, the report also found that fires at fraternity and sorority houses account for a larger portion of larger fires.
According to the FEMA report, fraternity and sorority houses across the country account for 13 percent of non-confined fires, 4 percent of confined fires and 6 percent of all university housing fires.
Once the Ann Arbor Fire Department and the Office of Greek Life decided to team up, Rampton said officials devised a plan, which would include fraternities and sororities that chose to participate after being asked by the Office of Greek Life.
Because the fire simulations are meant to be as realistic as possible, most of the people living in the house don’t know when they will happen. Only the chapters’ presidents are informed of the dates of the fire simulations, Rampton said.
When the fire simulation starts, the house’s fire alarm is pulled. When residents leave the house, they are greeted by a fire truck and American Red Cross cars. Once everyone has exited the house, the residents are informed that it is a fire simulation and then participate in an interactive feedback session with members of both the AAFD and the American Red Cross.
The purpose of the feedback session is to explain to the members of the house how they could better improve their evacuation in the event of a real fire.
The first fire simulation was conducted in the middle of February, Rampton said.
LSA junior James Milne, risk manager for Phi Delta Theta — a fraternity that participated in a simulation earlier this month — said the experience was helpful to the fraternity’s members.
He said though they were told by the Red Cross and the fire department that the fraternity did a good job of staying calm and checking the house to make sure no one was left inside, there are still areas they could improve on.
“They wanted us to have a set place to meet outside and said that we should get a louder fire alarm because it wasn’t too loud upstairs,” Milne said.
LSA sophomore Tom Hardenbergh, president of Phi Delta Theta, said since the fraternity had an “informal system” prior to the fire simulation, the fraternity took the suggestions to heart and implemented them at their chapter meeting that same night.
Hardenbergh said though he doesn’t think the members believed there was an actual fire going on at the time, members took it “seriously enough” and had an “adequate response.”
He added that while he thinks the initiative is a good idea, he thinks that after a while, the simulation’s intent to surprise may wear off, since most members of the Greek community will become aware of the initiative.
“The act of it being a surprise is very important in seeing how people react,” Hardenbergh said. “If you go to every single house, eventually people will know it’s going to happen. But the idea behind it is definitely a great idea, especially with the Delta U house fire in the summer of 2008.”
LSA and Kinesiology senior Jordan Nelson, president of Alpha Gamma Delta — a sorority on Hill Street —, said the sorority had the fire simulation last month, which helped members to gain a general knowledge of what they should do in those situations.
“We always have our regular fire drills, but this was an interactive experience because we were able to talk to them and they let us know what we were doing wrong and what we could improve upon,” Nelson said.
Nelson said one flaw the AAFD and Red Cross officials pointed out was that many of the residents exited through the front door of the house instead of the nearest door. They also suggested that the sorority create a method to make sure the sorority is accountable for all the residents of the house.
The sorority plans on improving this in the future by creating a buddy system, Nelson said.
Since the sorority house has had many false alarm fire drills recently, Nelson said the residents weren’t so surprised by the fire alarm’s going off, though they still exited the house.
But Nelson said this initial reaction changed when the members saw the fire truck outside. Nelson added that once the situation was explained, the sorority members were eager to hear what the fire safety officials had to say.
Chris Haughee, assistant director of Greek Life, said he feels the initiative has been effective thus far in increasing fire safety awareness among students in the Greek community.
“(They) seem to reflect that students appreciate the effort and are learning what they need to do in response to these situations,” Haughee said.
Haughee said he thinks through the Greek community’s involvement in fire safety awareness, others on campus will reap the benefits as well.
“We hope that the effort of Greek Life (will) also have a favorable impact on the rest of the community,” he said. “Our students are involved in a lot of student groups and their experiences can be shared with them. The ripple effect will hopefully be positive.”
Rampton, the community disaster education coordinator, said that so far participating students’ reactions have only “reinforced the idea of this initiative.”
“It’s very obvious that many sororities and fraternities don’t have plans in place, don’t have plans for accountability and are unsure on what roles to take,” Rampton said. “They knew to get out of the building, but there’s more to it than that.”
Rampton said it’s important to have a meeting place all residents are aware of so that everyone is accounted for and to know exactly how many people are inside the premises when the alarm is pulled.
He added that the University has one of the oldest Greek systems in the country with many older houses, making them even more susceptible to fire damage. The Delta Upsilon house that caught fire in 2008 was built in 1903.
“As a result, many (Greek houses) were built in the 1920s, some even earlier,” Rampton said. “A lot of the wood and insulation are very, very old. Some of them have obviously been updated but some parts of the houses are impossible to update. With age, the risk (of fire) is higher.”