Flirting with Disaster Despite several deadly fires around the country, fraternities at Oregon State University continue to flout fire safety rules.

By Aaron Corvin

Mid-Valley Sunday

CORVALLIS - It's a three-fold recipe for serious injury or even death.

Over the past five years, Oregon State University's fraternity houses have racked up thousands in civil penalties for violating the city's building code, according to Corvallis Fire Department records.

Fraternities have blocked fire exits, disconnected smoke detectors, silenced fire alarms and let residents sleep in potentially deadly crawlspaces - all actions that threaten the only fire safety lifelines the houses have.

Even when their safety systems haven't been tampered with, about half of the 32 OSU Greek houses don't have the sprinkler systems or modern fire alarms to protect their residents. The oldest building dates back to the early 1900s.

Outside supervision of fraternity houses - normally the responsibility of nonprofit alumni boards that act as landlords of the buildings - virtually doesn't exist. In contrast, alumnae are more heavily involved in fire inspections of sororities, which see far fewer safety violations.

Those three problems - repeated building code violations, inadequate buildings and a lack of supervision - are like matches waiting to be struck, according to Corvallis fire safety officials.

The question isn't if a fire will ever sweep through an OSU Greek house.

It's when.

"We've been fortunate, and our time hasn't come yet," said Jim Patton, fire prevention officer for the Corvallis Fire Department.

Except for some brushes with danger, Oregon State University has managed to steer clear of a major Greek house or dormitory fire.

Other campuses haven't been so lucky.

In the past five months, fires have struck fraternities at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania and Washington State University and a dormitory at Seton Hall University. Students were either killed or injured in those cases.

The latest fires have added to a growing national concern about fire safety at universities.

Last year, the United States Fire Administration and National Fire Protection Association held a college fire safety forum on the problem and possible solutions, including education through print, audio and videos.

Every year, about 1,700 fires burn college dormitories, classroom buildings and fraternities and sororities, according to a report by the two national groups.

The report said those who participated in the forum, including city fire officials and university building officials, believe the largest problem area is in off-campus housing, including fraternities, sororities and apartments.

"These facilities are not as regulated as the campus housing facilities, which means the risk to the students living in them is probably greater," according to the report.

Fraternities see fines

Every one of the 21 OSU fraternity houses has, at one time or another, violated the city's building code and put itself in harm's way, according to city fire officials. Officials inspect the fraternities and sororities every year and do follow-up inspections to see that violations are corrected.

Recent examples:

· On April 3, officials penalized Theta Chi fraternity house $500 for seven of its members sleeping in the building's study rooms where there are no smoke detectors and no emergency escape windows.

· On Feb. 25, officials penalized Phi Delta Theta fraternity house $1,000 for blocking a fire escape with mattresses and using what's known in fraternity parlance as a "butt hut." Members use the concealed crawlspaces to sleep in and to gain more privacy. City fire officials view them as firetraps, because the only way in or out is through a tiny hole in the wall. The crawlspaces also often contain makeshift electrical wiring for such items as space heaters. Fire officials view the combination of limited access and flammable materials as a death or injury waiting to happen.

· On Feb. 8, officials penalized Acacia House fraternity $1,400 for using two concealed crawlspaces and silencing the fire alarm system to cancel the fire department's response to an alarm tripped by kitchen smoke. Alarm company officials reconnected the alarm system. Four hours later, a minor fire started outside the house. Firefighters alerted by the now working alarm arrived and extinguished the fire. Officials searched the house to make sure all residents had evacuated. That's when they discovered the two crawlspaces.

· On Jan. 24, officials penalized Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house $500 for using a concealed room for sleeping. A heater, outlets and light fixtures were among the items found in the room. Officials ordered all items removed.

· On Jan. 19, officials penalized Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity house $500 for using a concealed room for sleeping. Men had put outlets and light fixtures in the room. Officials ordered the removal of all items, including a couch and sleeping bag.

· On Nov. 12, officials penalized Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house $400 for silencing the fire alarm system. Someone had broken into the fire alarm panel and disabled the system, according to the report. During repairs, officials discovered the wiring to two of the hallway smoke detectors had been disconnected. That meant most of the first floor, including the sleeping porch, didn't have a functioning fire alarm system. "It is unknown how long the system was down," according to the report.

Some of the code violations piled up by OSU fraternities are similar to those drawn by the fraternity house near Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, Pa. A fire struck the fraternity in March and killed three people. Code violations included a battery missing from a smoke detector, a missing doorknob and an empty fire extinguisher.

In October 1994, another fraternity house fire killed five Bloomsburg students. Officials blamed a smoldering sofa. Students might have been alerted, but batteries had been taken out of smoke detectors, a common practice during smoky parties.

This January, an overnight fire caused extensive damage to a Washington State University fraternity house. One student was treated for smoke inhalation.

That building, like many OSU Greek houses, did not have a sprinkler system.

In Corvallis, OSU fraternities pay the fines and correct the violations.

But city fire inspectors worry that few of the corrections remain in place for long.

Patton, the fire prevention officer who has extensive experience with inspecting Greek houses, said the corrections are intended to save lives, not inconvenience people.

"The residents need to understand they're not doing these things to keep the fire department off their backs," he said. "They're doing these things to protect themselves and others in the house."

Acacia Fraternity house, the oldest Greek house, has drawn more civil penalties than any other fraternity over the past five years.

Members said they're working to change things.

President Shane Sawyer, a junior studying environmental policy at OSU, said the two crawlspaces inside the house have been sealed.

Members also are putting fire safety high on their list of priorities, he said. Members will meet with alumni to discuss funding fire safety improvements and will get a contractor's estimate of how much it would take to improve safety in the building.

Acacia member Brad Kincaid, a sophomore who is studying computer science, said he doesn't want the fraternity or surrounding neighborhood hurt by a fire.

"We've been taking steps and working with our alumni to solve these problems," he said.

The perception that fraternities only engage in reckless behavior that endangers others isn't true, he insisted.

"Greek bashing has become popular," he said. "All fraternities - national and international - are honorable organizations, and many are dedicated to community service."

Sawyer said the relationship between his fraternity and the Corvallis Fire Department was tense at first but has improved. He said officials treat the fraternity fairly and sometimes choose to give warnings instead of civil penalties.

Sawyer said he believes Acacia House fraternity has a renewed sense of the importance of fire safety.

"I feel like we're at least on the right track," he said.

Buildings old, supervision missing

The problem of gaps in fire safety at OSU fraternities is complex, said Clay Torset, Greek Life operations manager for the university. Torset, 41, has been a faculty member at OSU since 1984.

Code violations aren't the only pitfalls.

In many cases, the cash isn't there to boost fire safety in old buildings.

Meanwhile, occupancy rates at Greek houses are on the rise. Now, about 1,000 OSU students live in Greek houses, while about 3,400 students live in on-campus housing.

The university doesn't own or operate the Greek houses, so there's no paid, professional management in place. Residents pay rent to landlords, which are the nonprofit alumni boards that oversee Greek housing.

Most of the fraternities' alumni live in Portland, which makes it difficult to get them involved in safety inspections and making sure that members follow the rules, Torset said.

In contrast, the nonprofit boards for sororities are in Corvallis, Torset said, so that's one reason sororities generally don't see as many code violations.

Many fraternities and sororities don't have the fire safety equipment that would make a building safe. Kappa Sigma fraternity is an exception, as is Delta Delta Delta sorority. Both houses are protected by sprinkler systems, and all the floors have manual alarm pull stations. Also, key rooms have smoke detectors.

Whether a house gets safety improvements depends largely on how much money is available from the nonprofit boards, Torset said.

"It's a matter of dollars and cents," he said.

In the meantime, city fire officials have put stopgap measures in place, including requiring emergency push bars on doors, and emergency lighting and exits in the basements where fraternities often throw overflow parties. Parties can draw 200 to 300 people at a time. Technically, the fraternities are required to seek a special permit to use the basements for such large, public functions, but most don't.

Also, officials distribute fire protection information and meet with Greek members to stress prevention methods.

Torset credits the fire department's hard-nosed inspections for much of the university's success in avoiding a catastrophic fire.

More needs to be done, he said, and help is on the way.

The university plans to add a staff member to oversee Greek student life.

Now, Torset juggles both building management and helping students with life skills.

With the change, Torset said, he'll be able to focus on working to get alumni members more involved in the inspection process and to seek the money needed to improve the condition of Greek houses.

Eventually, Torset said, all fraternities will go alcohol-free, a change that will help prevent the kind of behavior that can lead to fires.

"We've been kind of treading water," Torset said, "and now we're finally moving forward."

Help is inching along.

In February, federal lawmakers introduced legislation called the College Fire Prevention Act, which would provide $100 million for grants to install fire sprinkler systems in public and private university dormitories and fraternity and sorority housing.

Providing safe housing for students is becoming more important as student enrollment increases nationwide.

At OSU, enrollment climbed to 16,061 students this year and is projected to reach 18,000 in 2001.

Plans are in the works for new on-campus housing which will include modern fire safety features.

In the meantime, officials said changes in campus staffing, a strong partnership with the fire department and the department's no-nonsense inspection process have perched OSU above other campuses on the issue of fire safety.

"When I listen to other leaders from other campuses, there doesn't seem to be as much concern as we've demonstrated here at OSU," said President Paul Risser. "We don't do everything perfectly here, but we do have a sense of purpose for caring for each other."

Right mix of solutions possible

If the Fire Department's Patton had his way, all of the Greek houses would have sprinkler systems and up-to-date alarm systems.

Most deaths are caused by smoke inhalation. A smoke detector alerts a person to a fire, but it can't put the fire out. The ideal situation is to use sprinklers in combination with smoke alarms.

"If we could do that at every house, I'd sleep at night," Patton said.

In the meantime, he said, officials are continuing the aggressive inspections and the fire safety talks.

Patton said stepping up fire safety would involve gathering support from alumni for the inspections and for installing sprinkler systems and alarms in the houses.

Patton said he's planning to try to gather local bankers and alumni to talk about how to finance building upgrades.

In the end, Patton said, Oregon State University's Greek houses are physically no different than the houses that have been struck by fires at other colleges.

Usually college towns take action after a fire has hurt or killed students, he added. To avoid being added to that list, Corvallis needs to "see that we take action before the event happens in our own backyard."

But refurbishing older buildings to bring them up to code will be expensive.

Oregon's public universities face a backlog in maintenance totaling more than $420 million, according to a study done for the Oregon University System. OSU's share is $131 million.

The deferred maintenance is a steep hill that every university will be looking to climb, so it's unclear just how much money OSU will get.

In the next legislative session, OSU officials said, they expect lawmakers to include money for OSU as part of a push to address deferred maintenance at all seven Oregon universities. The funding package would include money for making buildings safer.

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