Over 15 years ago, freshman Dominic Passantino died from a fire at the Sigma Chi house before firefighters were able to extinguish the flames.
In March 2009, Columbia City Council approved an ordinance, sparked by this fatality, requiring all fraternity and sorority houses with 16 or more occupants to have sprinkler systems installed. Now, nearly seven years later, the March 16 deadline is approaching, but six houses have yet to meet regulations.
Among the houses yet to comply are Delta Tau Delta, Sigma Nu, Kappa Alpha, Theta Chi, Lambda Chi Alpha and Acacia. In May 2015, Delta Tau Delta and Sigma Nu formally requested an extension, and on Aug. 3, representatives of these two houses spoke at a City Council meeting.
According to the minutes from that meeting, Delta Tau Delta is in the process of fundraising and started a capital campaign to raise $3 million. They have requested three more years to raise the sufficient funds to build a new house. The house they have now is outdated and would be more expensive to repair than to demolish and construct a new one.
Sigma Nu has requested a two-month extension for similar reasons, claiming that their current house will be demolished in May and that construction of their new house will begin in June of 2016.
Brad Fraizer, Columbia Fire Department assistant fire chief and fire marshal said the required 13R sprinkler system is far less expensive than the full 13-sprinkler system, costing between $1.50 and $3 per square foot depending on the type of building involved, in addition to contractor prices. Unlike the 13-sprinkler system, the 13R doesn’t cover concealed areas such as closet spaces, bathrooms and attics, Frazier said.
According to the Department of Residential Life website, every residence hall is equipped with fire extinguishers, illuminated exit signs, fire pull stations and smoke detectors. Newer buildings also have automatic closing doors and sprinklers installed.The same is true for University-affiliated apartments.
The Greek houses are inspected once per year at minimum. When the ordinance went into effect, 25 houses did not have sprinkler systems. Since then, 19 of those 25 have adopted the ordinance.
“I would support a short extension like that,” Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas said. “(Delta Tau Delta) asked for several more years. I would be reluctant to support such a long extension because of the safety risk to residents.”
City council is working closely with the Columbia Fire Department to reach a final decision, Fraizer said. They plan to come to a conclusion well before the March deadline.
“Ultimately the city council has the final say, and we’re working to provide them with recommendations -- some things that they can think about,” Fraizer said.
When it comes to deciding whether to grant the fraternities more time, City Manager Mike Matthes said city council and the fire department understand that there are many obstacles in the way of Greek houses meeting fire regulations. However, Matthes pointed out in the Aug. 3 meeting that “the fraternities and sororities had received at least five years of notice.”
“Nothing has changed as of right now,” Fraizer said. “The deadline of March 16 is still in effect. It’s likely that there will be some form of accommodations made to help these fraternities that have not yet met the requirement. We don’t know what those accommodations will be, but I think it’s safe to say that will happen.”
Although no final decision has been made, the houses that do not meet the fire regulations by the March deadline may face fines and the loss of their occupancy permit.
Aside from the six houses not yet following procedure, Fraizer said the fire department is proud of the progress made by Greek Life in terms of fire safety.
“We have not had any significant fire events at a fraternity or sorority in quite some time,” Fraizer said. “The inspection program seems to be working. We do believe that it has had a positive effect.”
Neither fraternity could be reached for comment.