Greek houses face new fire standards

Fraternities and sororities in Champaign will already be up-to-code if a bill requiring automatic fire sprinkler systems in Greek houses passes through the Illinois House of Representatives.

The Greek Housing Fire Safety Act would make it necessary for fraternity and sorority houses built after Jan. 1, 2011 to contain automatic fire sprinkler systems. Existing houses would have to be retrofitted with a system before Jan, 1, 2019.

“Any time we have a method where we can protect the lives and property of individuals at college campuses, we will try to make legislation that does so,” said Rep. Daniel Burke, D-23, who introduced the bill on Feb. 8.

According to statistics from the American Society of Safety Engineers, which a national, nonprofit safety organization, about 150 fires occur nationally every year at fraternities and sororities. Those inflict an average of $580,000 in property loss per fire.

The legislation comes more than five years after an ordinance requiring sprinkler systems to be installed in existing dormitories, most Greek housing units, nursing homes and high-rise buildings by 2009 was passed by the Champaign City Council. According to a Feb. 5 report to the Champaign City Council prepared by Champaign Deputy Fire Chief Eric Mitchell, “100 percent compliance has been achieved.”

One fraternity on campus met a roadblock while trying to implement the ordinance last year. While being updated with a new sprinkler system in March, the Delta Tau Delta house, 401 E. John St. in Champaign, caught fire as most members were away for spring break. The residents were forced to move out until last semester, once the house had undergone months of construction and renovation. It now has a new sprinkler system.

“From what I hear it’s pretty intricate and works pretty well,” said Tom Kostelny, vice president of the fraternity. “Now if our house catches on fire, at least we have it running.”

Although the House bill may not affect fraternity and sorority houses in Champaign, not all cities have ordinances that address sprinkler systems in Greek housing.

“Basically, if there is no legislation about this (in a city), we want them to understand the need for it with this bill,” said Margaret Vaughn, lobbyist for the Illinois Firefighter’s Association and the Illinois Fire Safety Alliance who helped get the bill introduced.

The City of DeKalb is home to Northern Illinois University, which boasts 36 fraternities and sororities, according to the university’s Web site. However, the college town does not have any codes that require sprinkler systems in these organizations’ houses, said Lt. Karl Froehlich, fire prevention officer for DeKalb.

“I do look forward to the passing of this bill, so that things can move forward that way,” he said. “…But I do understand that it can have a financial burden on each of the houses.”

Burke said universities across the state could help fund the installation of sprinkler systems for Greek housing on their campus, but financial assistance from universities and from the state is not mentioned in the bill.

Kostelny said insurance covered a high percentage of the cost of the Delta Tau Delta renovations, but the fraternity still had to raise enough funds to complete the project, which included another new sprinkler system and dry walling.