Eight years after a Commencement day fire killed five students in the Phi Gamma Delta house, Chapel Hill fire inspectors recently discovered alarm systems deactivated and plastic cups placed over fire detector heads to prevent alarms from going off during parties at the rebuilt Phi Gam house.
Fire officials also discovered fraternity members shoveling wood chips into the basement of the Sigma Chi house for a beach party. The chips, which are highly combustible, were piled two to four feet deep. The members were ordered to remove them immediately or the house would be shut down.
Those were among 105 violations cited in spring semester inspections in Carolina’s 20 fraternity houses. Nine sorority houses had a total of nine violations.
“It’s very frustrating, because these rules and equipment are put in place to protect the brothers in these houses,” Fire Chief Dan Jones said. “When they intentionally disrupt this equipment and create violations, it’s like they’re working against their own safety. We’ve seen them cutting wires in alarm panels to prevent transmission of alarms.”
The 114-violation total was down from 263 found in the fall, Jones said. He said violations always are lower in the spring because members have time to repair those cited in the fall.
A fire department report written in April to the Office of Greek Affairs, Greek members and alumni advisers stated that “the number of violations is increasing because house maintenance is lacking and house fire marshals are not attending training.”
The report cited a “major incident” at the Tau Epsilon Phi house in the fall in which members took an alarm system out of service after the sprinkler system developed a leak big enough to set the alarm off.
“When we go there, they say they’re concerned about it, but no one will tell us who’s disabling the systems,” Jones said. “There are those frat brothers who don’t behave in such a manner, but they’re hesitant to speak up against the others who act like fools.”
Jay Anhorn, director of the Office of Greek Affairs, said, “Active oversight by our office staff has occurred through regular educational programs, life safety training and weekly meetings with our Greek student leaders.
“We continue to work with the alumni house corporations and chapter presidents as well as the chapter fire marshals to ensure they attend all fire safety trainings. I believe everyone is very aware of what happened in 1996.”
In the aftermath of the deadly 1996 fire, believed to have started with a smoldering cigarette butt in a basement trash can, Greeks have spent millions of dollars renovating houses and installing sprinkler systems and alarms. All houses now have sprinkler systems.
Jones believes a feeling of invincibility leads many to think such a tragic event could not happen to them. “They believe we’re overreacting and they’ll all be OK,” Jones said. “They need to go back and study more closely what happened in 1996 and understand that they may not get a chance to get out.”
Officials say sorority houses are less problematic because they have live-in house mothers.
All of the houses are owned by private corporations off University property. The University has limited control over them, but officials say its prerogative to remove UNC recognition of a chapter is a powerful incentive to obey rules. The town also could punish Greeks by removing a special zoning variance that allows large numbers of unrelated persons to live under one roof.