For the past month, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been working to teach students what it takes to prevent fires as a part of a national campus fire safety initiative.
Nowhere are those lessons more needed than in the fraternities and sororities that routinely have dozens of fire-safety violations.
“We’re going to find violations every year,” said Jeremy Leevey, fire prevention officer for the Urbana Fire Department. “It’s going to happen.”
A Fire Factor presenter explains the difference between a room with a sprinkler system and a room without a sprinkler system on Sept. 27, 2014. Event staff started a fire in both mock rooms and let the fire burn for three minutes. The room to the left had a sprinkler system installed, while the room to the right did not.
At the Theta Chi fraternity house last fall, Champaign city inspectors found 81 fire and life-safety violations, including holes in bedroom floors and inoperative emergency-exit signs.
At the Chi Psi fraternity house, city inspectors cited 76 violations, including a leaky roof and multiple propped-open fire doors.
At Phi Sigma Kappa, inspectors discovered 69 violations, specifically citing violations for improperly stored propane tanks and for a fire pit located within 10 feet of bushes outside of the house.
Overall, 57 of 61 Greek houses in both Champaign and Urbana had violations during initial fire-safety inspections last fall. Inspectors also examined an additional 15 non-Greek properties, and 14 of them had violations reported during their first inspections.
Inspections for this school year started in September and will likely continue through winter.
The inspections are the core of a university program that certifies houses for being safe to live in. The certification program allows houses to accept second-semester freshman, who are otherwise required to live in dorms.
“You have a new group of people coming into the same building, and they’re bringing their own extension cords, or they’re settings things up that are not safe, so we’re going to find stuff every year,” said Leevey. “The thing is whether they correct them.”
In general, the struggle to keep students safe continues year after year, despite the education efforts on fire safety.
So far this year, Leevey and the Urbana Fire Department have performed more than a dozen fire drills at Urbana Greek houses for free. Champaign also conducts fire drills, but houses have to pay, Leevey said.
To complement the fire drills, Leevey gives a handful of fire-safety presentations each semester. The presentations include information on “all the stuff we’re looking for during an inspection,” along with other tips.
“If we have to go back multiple times, that’s when we like to try to offer them education,” Leevey said.
In addition to the fire department’s efforts, the cities and University make combined efforts to educate residents about fire and life safety. Last week, about 140 students attended the educational event Fire Factor at the Illinois Fire Service Institute.
“They go through stations and actually use fire extinguishers,” said Janet Maupin, deputy fire marshal for the Champaign Fire Department. “They learn a little bit more about how things actually work.”
At Fire Factor, students had the opportunity to attend a session called “Surviving Your Next Night Out,” which focuse on occupancy hazards and evacuation procedure.
For education, a group of students from the University’s School of Art and Design also organized the “Subtract Stupidity Safety Campaign.” The campaign highlights “stupid choices” made by residents that endanger the lives of students, including disabling smoke detectors, propping open doors and pulling false fire alarms.
“Everyone wants to be safe,” Leevey said. “Nobody wants that on their head if they’re making the place unsafe for somebody else.”
The struggle for safety
Sigma Pi, an Urbana fraternity house, exemplifies the struggle to keep students safe.
Sigma Pi was cited for 54 violations in last September, including improper electrical connections, inoperative smoke alarms and missing carbon monoxide detectors.
But many of its other violations were minor, according to Michael Ayalon, national executive director of the Sigma Pi fraternity.
“For that particular chapter, that house is an older house, so one of the issues was just making sure that the house got all the electric up to code,” he said.
Inspection reports show that all violations were corrected at the Sigma Pi house by January.
Champaign and Urbana city staff members conduct the inspections under contracts with the University. Last year, Champaign received $45,408 from the University and inspected 54 properties during initial inspections. Urbana received $27,220 from the University and inspected 22 properties during initial inspections
“Inspectors have technical expertise and they can pull things out,” said David Oliver, code compliance manager for Champaign, “New occupants may not realize they can’t have extension cords.”
“It’s our job to educate those new people,” he added.
Inspectors give tenants inspection schedules and the exact date of planned inspections. Therefore, violations during primary and secondary follow-up inspections occur despite the fact tenants and house managers know when inspectors are coming.
Violations overshadow education efforts
Inspection records show that at least 32 houses still had violations during follow-up inspections last year, and at least seven houses still had violations during a second follow-up inspection.
“I would say 99 percent would be cooperative,” Leevey said. “We do have rare occurrences where we do get a little pushback based on some of the repairs or some of the things we cite as violations.”
One house, Alpha Chi Rho, a Champaign fraternity house, lost its certification for the University’s program this year, according to Mari Anne Brocker-Curry, associate director of housing information at the University.
Before losing its certification, the Alpha Chi Rho house was inspected in October of 2013. During that initial examination, inspectors found 12 violations. For the past three years, Alpha Chi Rho has had one repeated violation for a lack of egress for residents sleeping in one part of the house.
“We made a decision to remove their certification,” Brocker-Curry said earlier this year.