Task force urges giving campus houses more time to install sprinklers

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 | 6:43 p.m. CST; updated 7:54 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 24, 2009

COLUMBIA — Greek houses would have until 2016 to install fire sprinkler systems if the Columbia City Council approves a recommendation from a task force that's been studying the issue for months.

The recommendation, approved by the Fire Sprinkler Task Force on Monday night, extends by two years the five-year deadline that the group had previously considered. The idea is to give fraternities and sororities more time to raise money for the systems.

Task Force Members

Members of the Fire Sprinkler Task Force are:

Chairman Skip Walther, attorney

Bruce Piringer of the Boone County Fire Department and the Fire and Rescue Training Institute, Battalion Chief Steven Sapp of the Columbia Fire Department

Sam K. Williams, a regional underwriting specialist of Shelter Insurance

Janet Wheeler, president of the Kappa Alpha Theta Facility Corporation Board

Wayne Whitehead of the engineering firm Shafer, Kline, and Warren

City liaison John Sudduth of the Office of Protective Inspection


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The task force also is recommending the council extend the sprinkler requirement to other groups with student housing at MU and at Columbia and Stephens colleges, arguing it would be discrimination to require only Greek houses to comply.

"Fire doesn't discriminate," Donna Henson, whose son was killed in a fraternity house fire at MU in 1999, told the task force.

Henson showed a video illustrating how the lack of fire alarms and other safety features at the Sigma Chi house contributed to the death of her son, Dominic Passentino, who was a freshman when he died. Task force member Sam Williams asserted that there has never been a fatality in a sorority or fraternity house equipped with sprinklers.

Fred Malicoat, chairman of the Columbia Building Codes Commission, said the suggestions would amend a 2007 ordinance requiring that sprinkler systems be installed in all new duplexes. The modifications now include retrofitting Greek housing with fire safety features.

The task force, which has met four times since being appointed in November, is calling for five total amendments to the 2007 fire safety city ordinance. They are: 

  • A two-year extension for campus housing to raise money and install sprinklers.
  • A lower-level sprinkler requirement. Under the new recommendation, campus housing would have to install only a system designed to save lives rather than lives and property.
  • Cost abatements such as low-interest loans to help organizations comply with the sprinkler requirement.
  • Help, in the form of variances, for groups that make good efforts but struggle to complete fundraising.

Eliminating discrimination against fraternities and sororities was important to task force members. 

Based on a similar ordinance adopted in Stillwater, Okla., this amendment would include Greek houses and "all those affiliated by social, honorary, and professional" bonds and are recognized as organizations by the university. In Columbia, this would include Evans Scholar, the Campus Christian House and other similar housing at Stephens and Columbia colleges. 

Given the broader definition, the task force estimated 30 or more groups would have to install sprinklers in their buildings. To maintain full occupancy during school sessions, most of these projects would have to be done over the summer. 

Williams estimated a company could complete three sprinkler installation projects in one summer, leaving the task force confident that all houses could complete renovations within the new time frame.

Advisers of the Alpha Gamma Sigma and Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity houses attended the meeting and urged the task force to think about the economy and what an extensive project such as installing sprinklers would cost.   

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Matt Witthaus February 25, 2009 | 10:54 a.m.

The first amendment to the US Constitution gives us a right to privacy of beliefs, the third amendment gives us a right to privacy of the home (no soldiers can be forcibly quartered), and the fourth amendment give us the right to privacy of person and possessions (prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures). Unfortunately, some groups do not have the right to privacy in how they regulate their private residence. In a capitalist society, why can't we get the insurance companies to raise their rates unreasonably high if fraternities and sororities do not install sprinklers? This still gives the groups freedom of choice, but pushes them aggressively to take action that may save lives. We live in a community that enjoys forcing their views on others. Is there a point when excessive regulation should end? Will the government require all houses in Columbia to install sprinklers? What are the limits of government? Maybe we should ask these questions before we respond to a story that pulls at our heartstrings.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr February 25, 2009 | 11:57 a.m.

Matt Witthaus maybe you should think of the health and safety of those whom you do not even know before your own selfish and whimsical desires.

You might just be able to get there from here someday........................maybe.

(Report Comment)
Ayn Rand February 25, 2009 | 12:29 p.m.

"Will the government require all houses in Columbia to install sprinklers?"

Yes. In fact, that's in the latest codes, which Columbia is considering adopting. It would apply to all new homes. Not sure about major remodels, though.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro February 25, 2009 | 1:25 p.m.

Legislated mandates for the installation of sprinkler systems, in all existing homes is not a bad idea, as long as the people who vote this into law also pay for that installation, out of their own pockets.
(I would say the same for situations involving private residential home owners involved in major remodeling.)
If it is decided to have new home building codes changed to include mandatory sprinkler systems, then the builders' added expense would just be passed along to the "brand spanking new" home purchaser.
I would suggest that if building codes included better insulation, more efficient water heaters/water conservation devices, roof-top solar panels and "green friendly" materials and appliances, newly built homes would be catching up to 21st. century technology. (Sprinklers would be my low priority as long as electrical/gas problems, fireplaces, smokers, candle burners and kids playing with matches were kept to a minimum.) Home fire extinguishers, "smothering" a fire, as well as smoke alarms, seem to be working quite well for the average resident.
For insurance liability reasons and safety reasons, government housing, schools/dorms, nursing homes, hospitals and other dwellings with at-risk populations would benefit from sprinkler systems. (Probably, the same could be said for those living in trailer parks as well.)

(Report Comment)
Matt Witthaus February 26, 2009 | 11:18 a.m.

I believe the sprinklers should be installed. The need is even more apparent after the recent fire in the house of an MU fraternity. I'm questioning the methods used to achieve the end results. I don't believe my comment was selfish or whimsical. My comment was an effort to get people to think about both sides of the argument. There are many sound arguments as to why the sprinklers should be installed. Although everyone in a group may be in agreement, I implore everyone to research both sides because it makes your argument stronger. If we don't question government, we lose our sense of democracy.

(Report Comment)

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