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City adopts fire safety codes for Greek housing

Wednesday, January 3, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:50 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

MU fraternities and sororities will be required to install sprinkler systems in their houses now that the Columbia City Council voted to adopt the 2006 International Fire Code.

Everyone who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting supported adopting the new safety provision. However, representatives speaking on behalf of MU’s 37 Greek houses said the deadline for installing the sprinkler systems, Dec. 31, 2012, puts a financial burden on fraternities and sororities, and could result in some houses shutting down.

Jeffrey Beeson, vice president of public relations for the Interfraternity Council, asked the council to consider a seven- to 10-year plan for installing the systems, which he said would allow the local chapters to raise money from alumni and other sources. He said that MU’s fraternity and sorority houses are not open during the summer, which means they really only have 40 months to acquire funding.

Luke Miller, vice president of recruitment for the Interfraternity Council, said he supported the code’s provisions, but he estimated it would cost most houses about $100,000 to install the sprinklers. That would cost each house member an average of about $5,000. Adam Horwitz, president of the 35-member Alpha Epsilon Pi, said that, like all students, Greek members are already struggling with higher tuition and fees.

Columbia Fire Department Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said the sprinkler provision was adopted after reviewing a combination of other cities’ ordinances, most of which offered a five- or 10-year installation plan. Sapp said MU’s residence halls are in the process of installing sprinkler systems, work that should be completed in six to seven years. Sapp said he believed the allotted time for Greek houses needed to be shorter because of the number of fire-related deaths in fraternities and sororities.

“What is the appropriate amount of time to give?” Sapp said. “Some would say it’s too long, some would say it’s too short.”

In late November, a 25-year-old student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis was killed in a fire in the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. Earlier that month, a student was killed in a fraternity fire at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Neb., and on Nov. 4, a student from the University of Pittsburgh died from injuries he received in an off-campus fire.

More than 90 people have been killed in campus-related fires since January 2000, according to the Center for Campus Fire Safety, a nonprofit organization that compiles information on these fires. Most of those deaths have occurred at off-campus rental housing.

Dominic Passantino, a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, was the last MU student to die in a Greek house fire. He was killed May 8, 1999, after a candle he placed in a shoebox ignited his bedding. Passantino’s mother, Donna Henson of Kansas City, told councilmembers on Tuesday that a sprinkler system would have saved her son’s life.

“I never dreamed that the room I considered a safe haven would be the cause of my son’s senseless death,” Henson said.

David Bowman, Great Plains Regional Manager of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, Inc., said that the installation of sprinkler systems runs $2 to $3 a square foot, depending on the age of the structure. Because many fraternity and sorority houses are older buildings, Greek organizations can expect to pay about $3 a square foot. “We do not have the luxury of time,” Bowman said.

Some councilmembers and Mayor Darwin Hindman were sympathetic to the Greek members’ concerns about costs. However, many echoed Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe, who while saying she wants to give fraternities and sororities enough time to raise the money, added that “sitting here as a councilperson, we don’t want someone to die.”

First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton, citing the St. Louis student’s death, said members of MU’s Greek community should not have to wait any longer than necessary for the sprinkler systems.

“Safety comes first, up front,” Crayton said. “Brotherhood is one thing. Brotherhood doesn’t do you any good if you don’t come out of it.”


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