Several Isla Vista fraternity houses do not meet state fire code standards, according to local fire department officials, who say the fraternities must bring their houses into compliance or face eviction.
Wes Herman, captain of the UCSB Station 17 firehouse, will address the Interfraternity Council tonight at 7 to demand that several Isla Vista fraternities either make repairs to meet fire code standards or find somewhere else to live. Herman said he could not disclose which fraternities were involved until after he meets with them tonight.
Herman said that neglect of fire codes has created a severe risk to life and safety in some houses and would certainly leave members and guests in dire straits during a fire.
“The fraternities have always been a rough spot in my tour of duty here in 17 years,” he said. “But I’ve noticed in the past four to five years there’s been a deterioration in the quality of the way that the fraternities are kept … extinguishers discharged or missing, smoke detectors down or disabled because the batteries are for the Walkman, attic access coverage missing.”
Herman said missing attic coverings allow fires to enter the attic space and run the entire length of the building in a relatively short period of time.
“We’ll find evidence of smoking near couches and stuff like that, and then a lot of burns on couches and chairs when they’re upholstered,” Herman said.
Certain fraternity houses are also storing combustibles, such as cardboard boxes filled with decorations, next to water and space heaters within an illegal distance, he said. Any such storage must be at least 36 inches away from heaters.
Herman said these dangers remind him of a recent fire in a University of Mississippi fraternity house that left three students dead, and he said he believes better fire safety measures could have prevented such a tragic incident.
IFC President and Phi Sigma Kappa member Jason Everitt said that, although fire safety is an important issue for fraternity houses, he is not overly concerned with Herman’s warning.
“From our house’s perspective, we always keep up to code,” Everitt said. “We make sure that our property manager addresses all the concerns that the fire marshal has with our house, either with random inspections of our house or just to make sure that everything is OK. … Afterward, we make the changes that he’s looking for.”
Most fraternities fall within the jurisdiction of Station 17’s C Shift, and two houses within that area have already been investigated this fall. Although Herman has not yet investigated the remaining houses, he said he expects many other houses to fail inspection based on his observations during the past 18 months.
Everitt said maintenance depends on the system of house ownership.
“With a lot of houses it’s sort of a different situation [from that of Phi Sigma Kappa] because, in some cases, the alumni own the house and have no problems making changes to the house,” Everitt said.
But the fraternities are sometimes limited in the maintenance they can perform, Everitt said.
“When they’re talking about certain types of fireproofing in the walls or a sprinkler system in the house or something like that, those are the sorts of things that the chapters just can’t take care of and usually would fall on the responsibility of the property owner to take care of,” he said. “But, because there’s a sort of that strange relationship between the two, a lot of times issues aren’t addressed and potential dangers aren’t really taken care of.”
Though many of the fraternities Herman has investigated failed to meet fire safety standards, Herman said he has had few problems with sorority houses.
“Sororities are usually impeccably kept to a much higher standard,” Herman said. “I do worry a little about some of the alarm systems and things like that that the kids will disable so they can sneak people in and out of the sorority houses, but, in general, the sorority houses are kept very well and they’re much safer. In fact, they’re up to code.”
Tonight’s meeting is a way to give constructive criticism, Herman said. He said he plans to warn the council that a 24-hour grace period will be given to any fraternity house in which he sees a significant risk to life or general safety.
“I at least want smoke detectors right away,” Herman said. “If I’m satisfied that the boys have got a chance to survive a fire in that building and that it will be detected early, and that we’ve got their attention and we’re working together, then I will extend the timeframe.”
Herman cautioned, however, that he would be less flexible with uncooperative houses.
“If I’ve got a feeling that there’s resistance and that they’re not taking me seriously, and they’re putting themselves at risk and something like [the University of Mississippi incident] could result in three or four brothers killed in a house, or guests, it’s over. I’ll pull the chain that day if I feel resistance.”
Fraternity members should voice their opinions and discuss whatever problems they have with fire safety codes, Herman said.
“I’m going to listen to the fraternity officers [tonight] and what they have to say,” Herman said. “We’re starting school, they’re starting Rush – they’ve got a lot on their minds,” he said.
Fire safety might not always a primary concern of fraternities, Herman said.
“They don’t think about fire safety,” he said. “That’s just the priorities of young, optimistic people who’ve never seen a fire kill someone. It’s not a reality until it becomes one.”
Fire safety is a much larger issue that affects more than fraternities, Herman said. He hopes to increase students’ knowledge about fire codes soon.
“We need the cooperation of the community to make the community safe,” Herman said.