April 3, 2003

Fire Dept. Updates Code

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Without some structural changes to Cornell University fraternity houses, the New York State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code could prevent a lot of parties this fall.

The fire code calls for a physical separation of residences, a category which includes all fraternity and sorority houses, from places of public assembly, which hold all gatherings of more than 49 people.

Houses will not be able to hold parties larger than 49 people if they do not comply with the new code by June 1.

The fire marshal for the Ithaca Fire Department (IFD), Ray Wheaton, spoke to the Interfraternity Council (IFC) during their weekly meeting last night to break the news about the updates to the fire code.

“The problem we have is that we have residences and we have assemblies that aren’t legal to be put together unless they meet a certain criteria. That criteria is separation, and that separation is a physical barrier that separates the living area from the party and meeting areas,” explained Wheaton.

The existing permits will be honored until May 31, but after that time, the burden will be “on the fraternities and sororities to meet this separation criteria,” Wheaton said. If more than 49 people live in a house, and that occupancy is posted, then it will “only be contiguous for the people that live there, not those that don’t. Any guests over the posted number of residents are too many,” Wheaton said.

Before opening the topic for questions, Wheaton offered the following analogy of the new code: “It’s like taking a brick wall. On one side of the brick wall you have your house. On the other, you’re putting in a gymnasium.”

The most important fact that came of the question-and-answer session was the definition of a suitable separation as a “two-hour separation.”

“How long does it take us to burn through a wall? It takes two hours, which is kind of ambiguous,” Wheaton said. Fire doors will also be acceptable, provided they are placed in a two-hour wall.

Wheaton encouraged any fraternity that was going to hire an architect or engineer to plan the changes to contact the IFD to make sure both parties were clear on the changes that need to be made. The houses will be taken on a case-by-case basis.

Wheaton suggested that all University-owned houses use Martin Kelly, facilities consultant for the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, as a liaison. All other houses should contact their alumni representatives and have them talk to the IFD so that they can “go through the game plan,” Wheaton said.

Kelly estimates that “five or six of the campus-owned houses are very close to being OK, and there are others where some minor changes will be enough.” Addressing the IFC, Wheaton predicted that “90 percent of you can meet the code easily.” For a few houses, however, the repairs will be financially impossible, at which point the IFD “cannot allow you to go ahead and do social events. Cornell will not sanction it if we don’t allow it,” Wheaton said.

Kelly also encouraged fraternities to “think outside the box. We’re working with Campus Life to have parties elsewhere. Dining halls not in use on the weekends could be a possibility. We can start pushing for that.”

Wheaton was concerned that the fraternities be able to continue to throw parties. “I want you to have parties, but I have to stay within whatever the law says,” he said. He closed his address to the IFC by saying, “It’s a bad situation. We’re willing to try to help you work through it the best that we can. For those of you who know us well enough, you know that we try.”

IFC President Paul El-Meouchy ’04 responded to the new code, saying, “I think this is going to catch them a little bit off guard because it gives them a very short amount of time to try to deal with a problem like not having their house up to code for August, and a lot of fraternities like to register social events in August and September, to welcome the Cornell community into their house.”

Though the new code could force many houses to make costly renovations, Wheaton’s candidness at the IFC meeting was received well.

“I really appreciate that the fire department came over today to not drop this as a bomb in August but to tell the fraternities just what’s going to happen in August,” said El-Meouchy.

When asked about the origin of the new code, Wheaton speculated that “Rhode Island is probably driving a lot of this,” referring to the fire in a Rhode Island night club on February 20 that killed 96 people.

In response, El-Meouchy said, “It is reassuring that it’s coming from New York State rather than an attempt by some municipality to crack down on fraternities … it’s more a surveillance on all areas of public assembly.”

Archived article by Tony Apuzzo