Fatal Fire at Nebraska Wesleyan University Prompts Fire Code Review

Frat house was one grandfathered in, not requiring a sprinkler system


Long after the flames were extinguished from Friday's fatal fraternity fire at Nebraska Wesleyan University, a key question remained: If the 78-year-old Phi Kappa Tau house had had a fire sprinkler system, would it have made a difference?

Perhaps. Maybe even likely, two fire specialists said.

Sprinkler systems react quickly and often can suppress a fire quickly, said Ed Comeau, director of the Center for Campus Fire Safety, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts.

"Generally speaking, yes, sprinklers would have made a significant difference in the outcome of the fire," Comeau said. "They have a proven track record on them as life-saving devices."

For about 20 years, Nebraska and Lincoln fire codes have mandated that all new campus dormitories and fraternity and sorority houses include a sprinkler system, said Lincoln Fire Inspector Rick Campos.

But older buildings are not required to install sprinklers unless they are being remodeled, he said.

According to Campos, dormitories and Greek houses on campuses are required to incorporate the following fire safety measures:

* Working smoke detectors in every sleeping area.

* A fire alarm system consisting of pull stations by the exits.

* Identifiable primary and secondary exits to each room.

* At least four fire drills per year.

The problem is, fire codes are more reactive than proactive, Campos said.

Fire code committees often meet after a fire occurs and discuss what could have prevented that fire, he said.

"It really comes down to money,"Campos said. "To retrofit a house with a sprinkler system simply is a cost that a lot of time a corporate board or a house cannot afford."

In 1962, a fire caused considerable damage at the same Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house, according to Journal Star files. No one was injured when a fire broke out on the second floor of the house - near the same location of Friday's fire.

Nationally, about 10 percent of all campus-related fire fatalities since 2000 have occurred in Greek housing, Comeau said.

About 12 percent have occurred in campus residence halls, and about 80 percent have occurred off-campus, he said.

"What we really like to emphasize is the education of the students while they're on campus, a captive audience, so when they move off campus, hopefully something will stick,"Comeau said. "These are lessons literally for life."

Earlier this month, a fire safety seminar for Greek houses at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Nebraska Wesleyan was canceled because of low interest, Campos said.

The presentation was going to include a sprinkler salesman from Omaha discussing new alarm systems and the importance of sprinkler systems, the Daily Nebraskan, campus newspaper at UNL, reported.

Reach Hilary Kindschuh at 473-7120 or .