City safety inspectors find hundreds of fire hazards and safety violations in fraternities and sororities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign each year, yet it can take months before some violations are corrected, inspection documents show.
Almost all of the 60 fraternities and sororities inspected in 2012 had violations, many of which included disconnected smoke detectors, overloaded extension cords, broken sprinklers and faulty emergency lights, according to 2012 inspection records. Other violations were for unapproved cooking equipment such as hotplates, pizza ovens and self-heating skillets.
“It’s pretty much constant,” said Tim Spear, a Champaign housing inspector. “We always have some houses that just aren’t putting forth the effort.”
Fraternity and sorority officials emphasize fire safety and have programs to increase awareness of the dangers from not meeting code requirements. But they also acknowledge it is difficult to prevent and correct violations because of the youth of students and budgets.
“We don’t tell them to go fix their house or anything like that, but we provide as much material as we can on safety, which includes stuff like sample safety checklists, sample fire inspection lists and that kind of thing,” said Kevin Madden, national director of member safety for the Delta Chi fraternity.
Furthermore, city inspectors said all Greek houses certified with the university program are given inspection schedules at the beginning of the semester. That means violations occur even though house managers are notified in advance of inspections.
They also acknowledge that some violations go months without being fixed. Sometimes corrections are made but not immediately documented by the inspectors. In other cases, house managers make corrections but do not tell inspectors right away.
The University of Illinois has the largest number of Greek chapters in the country, according to the University’s website. Greek fraternity and sorority houses at the University hold about 4,000 students in total when full, said Mari Anne Brocker Curry, associate director of housing at the University. Another 4,000 or so students belong to chapters but do not live in the houses.
Most of the fraternity and sorority houses are certified for meeting fire safety codes through yearly inspections by Champaign and Urbana inspectors. Another 15 private student housing facilities – which are not Greek houses – are also certified and inspected.
Last year, inspectors examined 35 fraternities in Champaign and six fraternities in Urbana. They inspected eight sororities in Champaign and 11 sororities in Urbana during the same time period.
Officials from the Fraternity and Sorority Affairs Office at the University said the number of certified fraternities and sororities changes from year to year. While there were a total of 60 certified Greek houses last year, there are 62 this year. The increase was because of two additional sororities that became certified.
This year’s inspections are currently underway.
In total, there are 97 Greek chapters listed at the University. Some do not seek certification and some do not have residential housing.
Smoke detector violations pose serious risk
Inspection records show that inspectors cited at least 28 of 60 certified fraternities and sororities for smoke detector violations in 2012. The University’s annual Fire Safety Report from 2012 notes that smoke is “the major cause of death from fires within residence halls.”
A review of inspection reports of Greek houses also shows that the majority of the houses had:
– Deficient sprinkler systems
– Faulty emergency lights
– Extension cords or multi-plug adapters which are prohibited in the houses
– Faulty self-closing doors
Some violations took more than three months to correct, which was the case with the Alpha Tau Omega house. Last year, inspectors found 68 violations in September, 26 violations in October and 23 violations in November. By the fourth inspection in March of this year, inspectors found zero violations.
Jack Polancich, the house manager for Alpha Tau Omega, said the fraternity’s new executive board, which is made up of current Alpha Tau Omega brothers, addressed the violation problems last summer.
“The new executive board met with the alumni board of trustees over the summer, and the alumni suggested Alpha Management,” Polancich said.
Alpha Management, a real-estate management company, now helps Alpha Tau Omega manage and maintain the house. As a result, Polancich said a lot of the repairs “have been condensed down into just calling Alpha Management.”
In other cases, inspectors have found that violations actually increase from one inspection to the next. Inspectors cited Tau Kappa Epsilon for 21 violations in August of last year during a “pre-inspection” and then for 38 during the house’s official inspection a month later.
Inspectors said they conduct pre-inspections when there are violations left over from a previous year’s inspection rounds, or if a house had major remodeling or updating.
Jonathon Helck, house manager for Tau Kappa Epsilon, said a lot of the fraternity’s problems come from living in an old house with “20-something guys.”
“This year we had quite a few violations,” said Helck. “The house is really old and falling apart. We’ve had to file a few extensions on things.”
Inspectors said that the University’s “party culture” and the fact that so many students are living alone for the first time make the high number of violations expected.
“People now will go out and party and come back to the house and – because they are under the influence – they will kick doors, punch holes in walls and destroy exit signs,” said Michael Lamber, a Champaign housing inspector.
Violations can lead to danger, but inspection process lacks communication
From 2007 to 2011, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of almost 4,000 fires a year in dormitories, fraternities, sororities and barracks, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Those fires caused an annual average of two civilian deaths, 30 civilian fire injuries and $9.4 million in property damage.
A single fire can result in multiple deaths. In 1996, five students were killed and three were injured the day before graduation at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Phi Gamma Delta house. Investigators blamed a cigarette tossed in a trash can, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
“We’re still responsible for these people’s safety, though we don’t own a specific house,” said Madden.
Nonetheless, during a September 2012 inspection, Delta Chi had 44 violations. It had six violations during its re-inspection in October.
Inspectors mark in their own personal notes when violations have been corrected and then include that information when approving properties after their first re-inspections. Sometimes, Lambert said, re-inspections happen later because of a two-week grace period and because of formal written extensions. He also said that, in a majority of cases, violations are corrected within the allowed time. So, the violations may be corrected, but inspectors have not revisited the house to confirm.
Other violations are fixed in front of the inspectors on site, such as objects being moved away from obstructed fire exits.
Champaign has a total of four inspectors. Two were specifically assigned Champaign’s 43 Greek houses in 2012 in addition to their other duties. Last year, they also covered 10 of the non-Greek privately owned apartment buildings, which were certified as safe and healthy by the University of Illinois.
Urbana has two inspectors. In 2012, those two covered the city’s 17 Greek houses and its five safety-certified apartment buildings, in addition to their many other inspection duties. Urbana approved funding for a third inspector in October.
Houses can ask for extensions, but can also end up de-certified
After a house fails an initial inspection, the inspector schedules a re-inspection for 30 days later.
However, some violations require extensions and more time to fix. For instance, an electrical wiring hazard or hole in a ceiling may not be fixable in a 30-day window, inspectors said.
“Technically, all (violations) should be under extension if they go past 30 days,” Spear said. “We don’t have that great of a track record of getting them to fill out the (extension request) form. We’d like to see everybody comply within 30 days, but I don’t ever see that happening.”
Furthermore, Greek houses sometimes have trouble coordinating who pays for the repair costs of substantial violations.
Monica Scinto, vice president of housing for the Pi Beta Phi sorority, said budgetary constraints slow the process and cause delays in fixing violations. She said that, while Pi Beta Phi would like to make improvements and fix violations as soon as possible, it has to follow spending orders from David Kelton, the owner of Greek Management.
Greek Management is a property management company hired by the Pi Beta Phi alumni board to oversee the house’s property maintenance issues.
“As much as I would love to make more improvements – I know that we have money somewhere – he just won’t let us spend it,” Scinto said. “We can only spend a certain amount of money each summer, and it makes sense (why we have a budget).”
Kelton said it is not Greek Management but rather the corporations that own the Greek houses who make the decisions on what is fixed first and how a house’s money is spent.
“Life safety is number one on the list, and then it’s up to the corporations to decide what they want to do,” Kelton said.
If violations continue for too long, houses are eventually de-certified by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs.
Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Renee Romano said she tries not to take away certification too quickly. She said she could not name one house that lost certification in the eight years she has held her post.
“I would talk with housing and with the city inspectors – could they put a plan in place to be in compliance in a certain period of time?” said Romano. “But at a certain point, we do have to be serious about pulling their certification status. We can’t have our students living in unsafe conditions. We are certifying that these are alternatives to living in the residence halls for first year students.”
Violations range from power strip problems to sprinkler obstructions
In a September 2012 letter, inspectors required the installation of a locking door to Alpha Delta Phi’s crawlspace because they found beer cans and tea lights in the space, a clear fire-safety violation.
Inspectors found 34 violations when they inspected Acacia’s new house last year in September 2012. When they went back for a re-inspection in early October, 19 remaining violations included self-closing doors that did not shut, daisy chained power strips, sprinkler obstructions, plumbing out of order, holes in the ceiling and blocked exits.
The Acacia fraternity acquired its new house in April of 2012. Previously, the house belonged to an all-female sorority. National representatives from Acacia said that some of these violations were because of the remodeling and construction involved with transitioning an all-female house into an all-male house.
“Acacia Housing Corporation appreciates the annual certified housing inspection and works steadfastly to correct any and all items raised within the allotted timeframes,” said Arthur Mertes, a representative from Acacia Fraternity Housing and Acacia Alumni Corporation. “We have several levels of fraternity management to ensure that all items raised are properly addressed in line with these current standards – these include property management, architectural, construction and legal resources.”
Inspectors found zero violations during a third inspection later in October 2012.
Recently, the University’s housing office made organizational changes to better deal with housing violations.
“There’s a new position in the office to deal with extension requests and checking sprinkler reports,” said Mari Brocker, associate director of housing. “We are doing more proactively to help them be in compliance and hopefully getting in touch with them and getting a plan in place before [a violation] gets to be excessive.”
She said that the university must try different organizational approaches to address violation problems with new sets of students each year.
“We want them to have a good inspection every time, no re-inspections at all, and no violations at all,” said Brocker. “It takes a lot of education because the people who live in fraternities and sororities turnover every year or even every semester, and leadership changes as well.”
Corrections and Clarifications
An earlier version of this story stated some sprinkler systems in Greek houses were unlicensed or broken. While inspectors noted many deficiencies with sprinkler systems such as being painted over or blocked, those systems were not found to be functionally broken. In addition, the sprinkler systems are not licensed, but are required to be inspected and certified by private inspectors.
Also, Champaign Inspector Michael Lambert did not say “inspectors do not follow up by the date required for re-inspection” as noted in the story. He said that city inspectors re-inspect properties 30 days after the original inspection. Sometimes, he said, re-inspections happen later because of a two-week grace period and because of formal written extensions. He also said that in a majority of cases, violations are corrected within the allowed time.