DeKALB – The DeKalb City Council is considering requiring all fraternity and sorority houses
to have fire sprinklers installed by 2019.
Both city code and state law require Greek housing structures to have sprinkler systems installed; the question is how the city will use its home-rule authority to fully implement the Greek Housing Fire Safety Act, which took effect in 2011.
“Given that DeKalb is a home-rule community, the city is going to be looking at options as how to implement this,” Assistant City Manager Rudy Espiritu said.
Northern Illinois University has 44 Greek organizations, with 26 of them occupying some kind of house or apartment building. Four of the organizations – Delta Gamma Sorority, Alpha Sigma Alpha Sorority, Alpha Phi Sorority and Evans Scholars – already have fire sprinklers installed in their houses.
Jill Zambito, director of the Office of Student Involvement & Leadership Development at NIU, said installing fire sprinklers in the Greek houses is a positive development. Her office oversees Greek life at the university.
Zambito said many of the fraternities and sororities are working with their national headquarters because many of those also require sprinklers.
“It’s very much in line with the national standard,” Zambito said.
City officials said that within the past 10 years, there have been five serious fires in these housing units, including at Omega Delta Fraternity, the Evans Scholars house, the Phi Sigma Kappa Fraternity and the Phi Kappa Alpha Fraternity.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, fires at Greek houses accounted for just more than 5 percent of all university housing fires between 2007 and 2009.
But there are legal issues at play. For instance, the Greek Housing Fire Safety Act defines a Greek house as being any structure that has fraternity or sorority members. This could mean that an apartment unit housing only two fraternity/sorority members would be subject to the law.
Some Greek organizations also have begun to stay entirely within apartment complexes, but rather than signing one master lease, all of the members sign individual leases. However, city officials believe they are still subject to state law.
City Attorney Dean Frieders described the law as poorly worded.
“Whatever the city’s approach on this is, I think it’s likely that the council will adopt some legislation to clearly indicate and define what will or will not be subjected to these requirements,” Frieders said.
There also is disagreement on whether home-rule communities such as DeKalb have to enforce the law entirely. The Office of the Illinois State Fire Marshal believes the regulations are mandatory for all communities, home rule or not. City officials disagree.
“The ... response – not only on this issue but on other state fire marshal issues from every community we’ve talked to – has been consistent with the city’s response,” Frieders said. “Based on our home-rule power, the wording of these statutes – it is not a closed question.”