Sprinklers still lacking, years after ATO fire at Ole Miss

By Patsy R. Brumfield / Daily Journal

READ MORE: Errol Castens – Second ATO Fire lawsuit reaches settlement


OXFORD – Eight and a half years after three University of Mississippi students died in an early morning fraternity house fire, the state still hasn’t put sprinkler systems in all its campus residence halls and demanded increased safety measures by Greek houses.
That’s despite a 2005 law, which required all sorority and fraternity houses on state property to be equipped with approved fire alarms and smoke detector systems, and for sprinkler systems in all such houses built after the bill’s passage.
Caron Blanton, a spokesman for the state College Board, said last week that in the wake of the Ole Miss fire, the board required all residence halls – dorms, married student apartments, Greek houses, etc. – to be sprinklered, whether the fire codes required it or not. All residence halls met then-current code requirements at the time of their construction.
But the board’s 2013 report to the Legislature shows residential facilities at six of the state’s eight public universities have not yet completed the sprinkler updates.
Blanton says it’s difficult to tally what that will cost because, generally, the systems are woven into building improvement plans.
“The universities have made a concerted effort to sprinkler all their residence halls as money became available from the Legislature,” Blanton noted, “and it remains their top funding priority.”
At Ole Miss, seven of 14 private fraternity houses still lack sprinklers compared with systems at all sorority houses and public residence halls.
Ian Banner, director of UM Facilities Management, said efforts continue to bring fraternity houses in compliance.
It’s those private residence halls, built on public land, that fit Banner’s description of his greatest safety concerns: places with large numbers of people and places where people sleep.
Since 2005, Ole Miss has spent more than $5 million to install sprinkler systems in public residence halls.
Last September, the university gave the seven lagging fraternities an Aug. 1, 2013, deadline to install sprinkler systems or their members will no longer be allowed to inhabit the houses.
CHANGES MANDATED
Mississippi’s public and private campuses felt the shock waves from the Aug. 27, 2004, fire which destroyed the University of Mississippi’s Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house and caused the deaths of three members.
As soon as it went into session in 2005, the Mississippi Legislature went to work on a new law to ensure greater safety within all residence halls.
“This was a huge mountain to climb,” said Dr. Bill Kibler, vice president of Student Affairs at Mississippi State University.
“But it was a gigantic step forward to make us as safe as possible.”
All MSU residence halls and Greek housing are sprinklered, he reports.
It was not easily or inexpensively accomplished. Ten MSU residence halls that house more than 3,100 students were sprinklered for about $3 million.
He estimates the cost at $250,000 to update or add sprinklers to 13 of 20 Greek houses without sprinkler systems before 2004. These residences house about 650 students.
Other than MSU, every public campus has its own or private student residences without sprinkler systems.
• Alcorn State – 2 dorms
• Delta State – 1 dorm, 1 apartment
• Jackson State – 2 wings of one building
• Ole Miss – 7 fraternity houses
• MUW – 2 dorms
• MVSU – 3 dorms
• USM – 2 student apartments
Ole Miss, MSU and USM are the only campuses with Greek housing. USM reports sprinklers in all of its.
Today, the legal ramifications of that fire are working their way to culmination.
Two of the victims’ families sued ATO’s local and national organizations in 2007, claiming gross negligence and safety failures.
One lawsuit was settled confidentially last summer while the second reportedly has been agreed to “in principle” in Lafayette County three months before it was due for trial this year. The third victim’s family declined to sue.
OTHER CAMPUSES
Conversations with other campus safety officials, especially in Northeast Mississippi, reveal they have established even greater safeguards since the ATO fire.
Itawamba Community College’s Buddy Collins, vice president of Student Services, reports the Fulton and Tupelo campuses have had no fires in the 20 years he’s been there.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” he said last week, detailing ICC’s focus on safety equipment maintenance and awareness.
Students, faculty and staff expect fire drills. At ICC residence halls, it’s every month. It’s at least twice a year at private Blue Mountain College.
Northeast Mississippi Community College’s safety spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Today’s campuses also appear to have put the fire safety responsibilities on adults, not students as was done in the Ole Miss Greek houses.
Lavon Driskell, Blue Mountain’s athletics director and women’s basketball coach, is chairman of the campus Safety Committee.
He also reports no campus fires in recent years, but says his biggest concern “is what we can’t control,” some of that being student behavior.
Such heightened concerns apparently weren’t the rule at the Ole Miss ATO house as the university looked toward its fall 2004 semester.
Even Circuit Judge Andrew Howorth of Oxford, who presided over both fire-death lawsuits, remarked dramatically in the record about the fraternity house’s unsafe conditions for quite some time before the fatal fire.
“Fire inspection reports dating as far back as 1993 reveal an inoperable central alarm system and the absence of operational smoke detectors in sleeping areas of the fraternity house,” Howorth wrote in a 45-page order dated Oct. 4, 2011, denying ATO National’s motion to dismiss the lawsuits.
Wynn Smiley, ATO’s national chief executive officer, referred all questions to its Jackson attorney, W. Scott Welch III, who declined to answer questions about what changes the national fraternity has made since then.
Howorth’s scathing order stated that immediately before the 2004 fire, Smiley decided that individual ATO chapters’ $6 million liability coverage was just a money pit waiting for greedy plaintiffs attorneys to go after.
To reduce that likelihood, the judge wrote, Smiley slashed the coverage to $100,000 on most chapters while still requiring each member to continue paying the same level of insurance premiums.
Locally, Howorth noted, as of the date of the fire, the Ole Miss chapter’s adult house corporation president had not scheduled mandatory fire alarm system maintenance to correct deficiencies discovered by an inspector two weeks before the fire.
“Nor had he notified the young men who lived in the fraternity house that the central fire alarm system was out of operation,” the judge said.
While not all have sprinkler systems, all Ole Miss fraternity houses have functioning fire and smoke alarms installed, and they are tested monthly, officials say.
Houses under the gun to “get compliant” – install sprinkler systems by Aug. 1 – are Beta Theta Pi, Kappa Alpha (installed but not yet approved), Phi Kappa Psi, Phi Kappa Tau, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Sigma Chi and Sigma Phi Epsilon.
SAFETY EFFORTS CONTINUE
Campus Firewatch, a Massachussetts monthly electronic newsletter, focuses on issues of campus fire safety. CF’s latest report for 2000 through Nov. 27, 2012, shows 158 campus-related fire deaths during that period, with 86 percent occurring off campus.
Greek housing deaths, it notes, totaled 10, or only 6 percent.
CF’s first fire to take notice of was a notorious residence hall blaze in January 2000 on the campus of Seton Hall in East Orange, N.J., where three freshmen died in a fire that started in upholstered furniture.
As a direct result, the New Jersey Legislature passed a landmark law requiring all dormitories and Greek housing to be sprinklered within four years and provided funding to do so.
After the Ole Miss ATO fire, the 2005 Mississippi Legislature passed House Bill 1132, which authorized the State Fire Marshal’s Office to inspect all sorority and fraternity houses on state property, as well as to require the State College Board to study the fire safety of those houses.
But no funding was approved for the law, which required all sorority and fraternity houses on state property to be equipped with approved fire alarms and smoke detector systems, and for sprinkler systems in all such houses built after the bill’s passage.
Ricky Davis, chief deputy with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, says that inspecting campus residences and other buildings each year is a huge and important undertaking.
Since the ATO fire, he said no serious safety incidents have occurred on any state campuses, just run-of-the-mill inspection violations usually addressed quickly.
MSU’s Kibler said his campus set out to install sprinklers in every residence hall, regardless of its age.
Now, with that work complete in the past three years, Kibler said his office works closely with the adults who run Greek house corporations to ensure that safety standards are met.
That’s quite unlike the previous Ole Miss situation, at least at the ATO House, where vigilance for fire safety and inspections was most immediately in the hands of students, who were the fraternity’s elected officers.
The College Board’s Blanton said the situation today is complicated by a Mississippi Attorney General’s Office legal opinion that the College Board has no legal jurisdiction to force private fraternity or sorority houses to comply with the board’s sprinkler mandate because the universities own only the land and lease it to the Greek organizations, which own the houses.
Ole Miss’ new sprinkler deadline appears to ignore that opinion, which is not law, to reach full compliance.
FUNDING LAGS
Questions linger about whether in another tight-money year the Legislature will appropriate enough money to complete the university residence sprinkler system, which it required nearly eight years ago.
“It concerns me greatly that residence halls are not sprinklered – that we have any,” said Rep. Nolan Mettetal, R-Sardis, chairman of the House’s Universities and Colleges Committee.
“I don’t know the answer about why we haven’t done it, but it needs to be done.”
His sentiments were echoed by Rep. Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, on Mettetal’s committee but also on Appropriations, which makes money decisions.
Beckett said he sees “a new attitude” in the Legislature about increased bond funds, which can go to sprinkler projects if they are the College Board’s priority.
“If we mandate it,” he said about the 2005 bill, “we should do it.”
Sen. Joe Polk, R-Hattiesburg, is chairman of that chamber’s Universities and Colleges Committee. He said he wasn’t familiar with the sprinklering shortfall, but said student safety is a primary concern.
“If this is a number one priority” for the College Board, he said, “it will certainly get the utmost consideration.”
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com

No Sprinklers
Ole Miss fraternity houses still without sprinkler systems:

– Beta Theta Pi

– Kappa Alpha (installed but not yet approved)

– Phi Kappa Psi

– Phi Kappa Tau

– Sigma Alpha Epsilon

– Sigma Chi

– Sigma Phi Epsilon