Greek house fire safety scrutinized

Proposed amendment would require all Greek houses in Columbia to install fire sprinkler systems.
Wednesday, April 13, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:53 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Columbia architect Bob Cunningham is drawing a blueprint for a fraternity house in Mississippi. In the past 20 years, his company has designed 60 to 70 Greek houses. This one belongs to Alpha Tau Omega and might be the most famous. In August 2004, fire destroyed the original house at the University of Mississippi and claimed the lives of three students, ages 19 to 20.

“There is nothing sadder than losing a child,” Cunningham said.

The architect said tragedies like that are the reason he strongly recommends installing fire sprinklers “in every fraternity and sorority house, regardless of regulations.”

The Columbia Fire Department, however, wants to make it the law. At a meeting in late March, Battalion Chief Steve Sapp proposed an amendment to the city fire code that would force all Greek houses in Columbia to install fire sprinkler systems before Aug. 1, 2010.

The Columbia Building and Construction Codes Commission rejected the proposal, saying it needs a better definition of Greek houses.

The Fire Department didn’t give up.

“That was the first time we brought the idea to the table for discussion,” Sapp said. “We want to know people’s needs and concerns. In six months or a year, we might bring it back to the meeting.”

Cost of installation

The biggest concerns Sapp hears from the Greek houses are cost and awareness.

“When I was 18, 19, 20, I didn’t give it a thought,” said Elaine Malcolm, house mother of Alpha Delta Pi.

Now “over 50,” Malcolm is an alumna of the sorority house. The sorority house corporation, an alumni organization and the actual owner of the house, installed sprinklers six years ago.

Of more than 50 Greek houses in Columbia, fewer than 10 have sprinkler systems installed, according to the Fire Department. Many houses cited cost as the major obstacle.

Cunningham said sprinkler systems would add $2 to $3 per square foot to the cost of a new Greek house, and the total construction cost would grow by 3 percent.

Compared with new construction, renovating an existing house with sprinklers costs more. It requires a larger water supply to keep adequate pressure.

“Some might need to tear up the water lines to the street and put a new one,” said Brian Pape, president of the American Institute of Architects Mid-Missouri Chapter. “You have to change the whole design of the building and reconstruct all over the place. The cost could be extravagant.”

Greek houses, competing with other residential halls and private houses, are reluctant to raise their rent. Sometimes even simple facilities updates in these houses depend on funding from alumni organizations.


To ensure the safety of students, MU decided to have all its residential areas “sprinkled,” as both the architect and fire marshal put it, before 2015. This policy, however, won’t affect Greek houses, because they are private properties.

Despite the absence of government policies on sprinkler systems, Greek houses can have a discount from insurance premiums, if they install the systems.

For a single-family house, a full sprinkler system can reduce the premiums by 10 percent, said John Wiscaver, spokesman for State Farm Insurance Cos. Discount rates for large commercial properties such as fraternity and sorority houses vary.

More incentives might be on their way. Debbie Sorrell, Greek house inspector for the fire department, said federal and state governments are considering tax breaks for homeowners installing sprinkler systems. If passed, the policy could add another deduction to the cost.

Vigorous market competition may further reduce the expense.

Sapp said Scottsdale, Ariz., passed an ordinance requiring sprinkler systems in all buildings 15 years ago. Fire cases dropped off dramatically, while the booming market dragged down the installation cost to only half the national average.

Sprinklers undoubtedly reduce damage when fire breaks out. Sapp said that in Scottsdale, the loss per fire is $37,000 for houses without sprinklers, and only about 10 percent of that, or $3,800 for those with them.

Cost of life

Saving life is the primary purpose of fire suppression. Architects, however, disagree about whether sprinklers are a must.

Pape said that in houses with many safety measures, such as fire separation walls and smoke detectors, sprinklers are just a small part of ensuring safety.

“A sprinkler is an insignificant part of fire prevention,” Pape said. “It’s not an issue.”

Cunningham, however, thinks sprinkler systems are the single most important method to save lives in fraternity and sorority houses.

“They have special lifestyles,” Cunningham said. “Many of them sleep on the upper floor. It would be difficult to escape.”

In the past 20 years, Cunningham has put sprinkler systems into all but one of the Greek houses he designed. The only exception was due to an inadequate water supply.

Cunningham said there hasn’t been a fire with multiple deaths in houses installed with a 13R type of Sprinkler system, the type used widely in residential houses.

Columbia saw a major fire in 1999 at the Sigma Chi fraternity house on College Avenue. Freshman Dominic Passantino lost his life. Now the house is renovated and holds another fraternity, but it still doesn’t have sprinklers.

Sapp said fire detection alone can’t protect students living in fraternity and sorority houses because it’s often ignored.

“An automatic response system is extremely effective,” he said. “It would put fire out, and people would have chances to escape.”

Sapp said college students are a tough age group when it comes to personal safety: “They think they are invincible. They are not.”

A portion of this report first aired Tuesday during “ABC 17 News at 10.”

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