April 21, 2008

Fire Dept. and IFC Assess Safety of Student Housing

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Fraternity parties being cancelled because the house did not pass fire inspection is not uncommon at Cornell.
In Cayuga Heights, a village north of Cornell’s campus where many Greek houses are situated, Fire Lieutenant Joe Lisi works with the village engineer’s office handling code enforcements.
“Basically in Cayuga Heights the sort of things we look for [are] that the building is up to building code standards, village zoning that is a livable, habitable space with no mold and mildew in the bathrooms and kitchens and that everything works with no issues,” Lisi said.
For a regular home in Cayuga Heights a fire inspection only occurs when the house is initially built, for a Certificate of Occupancy permit. Lisi explained that both fraternities and sororities fall under a different category. Apartments are inspected every other year, while fraternities and sororities in Cayuga Heights get checked yearly because of the transient nature of the residents. Most of the Greek houses undergo a summer inspection, and then another secondary house inspection in the fall when residents move in.
The most common violations Lisi has noticed include missing batteries in fire alarms or covered fire alarms, blocked exits and missing lights in exit signs.
Gregory Schvey ’09, president of the Interfraternity Council, explained that one advantage for houses owned by the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, is that they provide a facilities inspector to predict whether or not a house will meet fire inspection. Some violations they have observed include objects hanging off sprinklers and flammable party decorations.[img_assist|nid=30065|title=Hospitable environment|desc=Off-campus houses, like this one in Collegetown, are typically inspected less often than Greek houses are.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Currently, Schvey said, only one fraternity is missing their certificate of occupancy, but he would not say which house.
“There was a house a couple of years ago that filled up their basement with packing peanuts, a major blockage and flammable. The house said the packing peanuts were not flammable but the fire marshall showed they how they actually are flammable,” Schvey said.
Lisi explained that while the Fire Dept. keeps the Office of the Dean of Students updated on inspections, they do not grant event permits in Cayuga Heights.
“Basically the houses in the Heights have to register with Cornell, but we only get involved if there are a lot of complaints or if there is a police or EMS issue. If we know something before hand, like if a house checks with us if they can do certain things then we might check on it. In the time I’ve been doing it we haven’t done any surprise checks. I’m not saying we couldn’t do it but it’s not something we regularly do,” Lisi said.
Schvey explained the event management guidelines that the IFC maintains in relation to the fire code rules. According to the IFC, no event can have more than 250 attendees, regardless of the limit set by the fire department. Additionally, representatives from the OFSA’s Social Responsibility Committee must stand outside parties regulating who can enter and leave.
“If the SRC is going around and seeing the entire house packed they’ll speak to the president who has to get people out,” Schvey said.
David Brodnick ’10, social chair of his fraternity, voiced his frustrations with the fire inspection system.
“Basically there guys have one job in the world: to fail you. The bureaucratic mess that results from the intersection of the building department, fire department, and the OFSA is an absolute nightmare. One guy will tell you one thing, his boss will counter what he said, and you’re left trying to pick up the pieces. It’s not that they try to fail you exactly, there are invariably going to be issues, some of them pretty small, but the bureaucracy is just impossible to navigate and the authorities that be can stonewall you at any point in the process,” Brodnick stated in an e-mail.
Schvey defended that process, stating, “That’s their job. It’d be like saying a teacher was trying to fail you by putting hard questions on a test.”