March 7, 2003

Fire Codes 'Hot Topic' for Frats

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In response to last month’s club deaths in Rhode Island and Chicago, The Ithaca Journal reported last Saturday that in a survey of 34 fraternities which was conducted over the past two years, two of those fraternities had “clean inspections.”

Fire and police departments nationwide have become increasingly conscious of what Martin Kelly, facilities consultant for the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, has called a “hot topic.”

Most of the problems that the Journal reported were minor ones such as obstructions in the pathways toward fire exits and having unlit fire exit signs. But all involved expressed concern for the large catered fraternity parties where the legal limit of persons allowed in a building is often exceeded.

“In the past, the [Ithaca Fire Department] has shut down fraternity parties and has taken away occupancy permits,” said Ray Wheaton, assistant fire chief of the Ithaca Fire Department (IFD).

So far this year, IFD has shut down two or three fraternities. Wheaton would not comment on specific cases.

In response to fraternity parties, Steve Wehrspann, safety engineer with Environmental Health and Safety, said, “Keeping head counts [is] difficult. I think [fraternities] do an excellent job [of staying within code during parties].”

Wheaton emphasized that the IFD was not an enforcer and that they “look to correct.”

According to the code, fraternities are responsible for meeting code and limiting the number of occupants to meet the legal limit.

“I don’t think [the fraternities] are up to task. Not so much [because of] a lack of responsibility but that they are not removed enough from the party,” Wheaton said.

He went on to say that there are some exceptions.

“There are frats that break their backs to stay in the law, but there are others that push the envelope,” he said.

“I think some of our biggest problems are frat parties,” Wheaton said.

Kelly, however, feels that fraternities and sororities are “very intelligent” and up to the task of taking responsibility for meeting codes. He was quick to point out that no University-owned fraternity or sorority has been shut down indefinitely in recent years for code violations.

In response to the Journal article, Wheaton said the department is continuing with its “regular inspection schedule” even though it is “grossly understaffed.”

Kelly works with the University-owned fraternities and sororities to make sure that they are under fire code. This job includes replacing traditional fire exit signs with LED signs that have a 50-year lifespan and installing sprinkler systems in all University-owned fraternity and sorority houses.

According to Kelly, codes do not call for sprinkler systems, but the Board of Trustees has mandated that all University residences install them. Right now only a third of the houses are fully covered, an equal third has partial systems installed and another third has none.

Kelly and his office have regular meetings with house managers to discuss these and related issues.

Wehrspann described the codes as a “complicated calculation” based upon the “type of building and use of the building” and whether people are seated or standing.

The codes, which are newly adopted, allow for a maximum floor space per person of five square feet if occupants are standing and seven square feet if they are seated.

Additional factors for maximum allowable persons include whether the building is made of noncombustible substances and the number of fire exits.

Because of the complexity of the codes, “perfect inspections are rare, but serious violations are equally rare,” Kelly said.

Both he and Wheaton discussed the trend of false alarms on weekends at parties. This is a serious issue for both departments, they said. Kelly has worked with fraternities to station someone near alarms to halt or discourage these “malicious” false alarms.

Archived article by Michael Margolis