Fire risk for Greek houses deemed low

by Jess Jacob | 5/27/96 5:00am

Earlier this month, a fire that was probably ignited by a lit cigarette claimed the lives of five students in a fraternity house at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but administrators and Greek house managers at the College say such an event could not happen at Dartmouth.

But "a situation like this makes people more aware accidents do happen," said Bernard Haskell, assistant director of residential operations.

Haskell said the College's installation of sprinkler systems, constant checking of fire safety equipment and education of house managers help to prevent such an event from happening at Dartmouth.

Steven Schmidt '97, house manager of Bones Gate fraternity, said he does not think the Chapel Hill incident could occur at the College.

"Thanks to the efforts of both the College and fraternities, it is highly unlikely that such a tragedy could occur here at Dartmouth," he said.

One safety precaution the College takes, unlike UNC, is the use of a sprinkler system.

The Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house at UNC did not have a sprinkler system and one of the basement doors was open so the blaze spread quickly.

"All but one of our houses are sprinkled, which was one of the problems of Chapel Hill," Haskell said.

He said the reason Gamma Delta Chi fraternity does not have a sprinkler system is because there is no code that requires them to. But, he said the College has installed the systems in other houses for safety.

Gamma Delt house manager Mark Franklin '98, said his house is made of concrete and steel I-beams, so it would be "impossible to put a sprinkler system in."

Haskell said the College installs sprinkler systems as it renovates Greek houses.

The Office of Residential Life inspects all Greek houses once a term to assure that every room does not violate health and fire safety codes. Each house has a fire drill each term, and the Hanover fire department assists in these inspections and drills, Haskell said.

The College checks fire equipment, including fire alarms and extinguishers, and exit signs regularly. The fire alarms in the common areas of each house are wired into Safety and Security, the heating plant and the Hanover fire and police dispatch, he said.

Haskell emphasized the importance of house managers' roles.

"We work with and educate the house mangers," he said. "They, themselves are pretty conscious about fire and life safety issues."

Michael Mearls '97, house manager of Sigma Nu fraternity said his house and other Greek houses are among the safest buildings on campus.

"I don't know if the dorms are inspected, but I don't seem to remember having inspections or anything when I lived in them," he said.

Delta Gamma sorority house manager Maren Stern '97 said her house is conscious of safety issues. "The College isn't in the habit of handing out houses so we'd like to keep ours," she said.

Some house managers said their members step up their safety measures when hosting a party.

"In addition to typical stuff like checking IDs at the door, we have brothers watching each of the fire alarms on the first floor and basement to guard against false alarms," Mearls said. "Brothers, in general, are responsible for keeping an eye for people who may be getting a little out of control."

But House Manager of Psi Upsilon fraternity Matt Shafer '97 said his house does not take extra precautions when it has a party. "We're very confident that people are safe during parties," he said.

Fire hazards may be easier to control during a party.

"Everyone is confined to a small area so we know where everyone is during parties," Josh Papsdorf '98, house manager of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity said.

The UNC fraternity fire destroyed the house so quickly that students did not have time to get out, and Dartmouth house managers said evacuation is a major issue.

"The biggest concern is getting out if there is a fire," said Gary Long '97, house manager of Beta Theta Pi fraternity.

Long said his house keeps all exits clear when it has parties.

Sandeep Shah '97, house manger of Zeta Psi fraternity, said his house regulates the number of people allowed in for parties. He said exceeding the fire capacity limit has "never presented a problem here."

Kate Protextor '97, house manager of Sigma Delta sorority, said her house is very aware of fire safety issues. "At our last party, we had officers watching the doors so we knew how many people were in the house," she said.

But some house managers said it is difficult to keep the number of people at a party within the limits regulated by fire safety codes.

Shafer said Psi U turns people away if it gets over capacity, but this activity can be difficult.

He said unlike most colleges, the parties at Greek houses at Dartmouth are not invite-only. "Because they are open to the whole campus, there is no basis to turn away people," he said.

Mearls said he finds it especially difficult to regulate his house's capacity during big weekends.

"The biggest problem we have during open social events is pulled fire alarms. We've never had much trouble emptying the house when an alarm goes off," he said. "We've taken a pretty active stance on stopping them."

Matthew Richards '97, house manager of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, said it is the responsibility of door monitors, house officers and the house social chair to keep the house under control.

Richards said monitors should be more educated about fire and health safety issues. He said he tried to have a fire safety seminar during Greek Week, but was unable to. "Next term, all the monitors will have fire safety training," he said.

North Carolina firefighters conjectured that a cigarette started the fire at the Chapel Hill house.

Although most parties at the College are smoke-filled, some houses are trying to stop the practice.

"Our house has tried, especially during parties, to disallow smoking throughout the house. Currently, there is only one smoking room in the house, and that is a brother's room," said Aaron Larson '97, house manager of Chi Gamma Epsilon fraternity.

Traci Entel '97, house manger of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, also said her house is a no-smoking house, which is an "added plus."

Greek house managers said often it is the people who attend the parties rather than the houses themselves which hinder students' safety.

"Overall, I would say fraternity parties are very safe, if you keep your head. Obviously, anytime someone drinks more alcohol than they should, they put themselves at greater risk for accidents in general," Larson said.

"But the houses physically are unlikely to harm students who attend fraternity parties," he added.

There have been fires in a few Greek houses in the recent past.

Sigma Nu "had a fire in the house in the fall of '94 that was quickly brought under control by the sprinkler system. The fire damage was limited to a single couch," Mearls said.

An electrical malfunction destroyed a room in DG during the summer of 1993.

But most houses have had just false alarms.

"The DJ's smoke machine triggered the fire alarm at one party this year. We haven't had any other problems since I've been house manager," said Rebecca Harrington '96, house manager of Tabard coed fraternity.

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