Although chapter houses can be a wonderful aid to the fraternity experience, they also can be a detriment. A house brings more responsibility and more opportunities for safety mishaps. A survey of 260 fraternity chapter house fires showed that poor housekeeping, careless smoking and match disposal, misuse of electricity by overloading circuit breakers or fuses and/or excessive use of extension cords and defective heating devices were the leading causes of fraternity house fires. All can be eliminated or managed with proper emphasis by chapter leaders and advisors.

All chapter facilities should always comply with all local fire and health codes and standards. It is the responsibility of the facility manager to monitor, maintain and ensure the chapter’s adherence to the fire and health codes with regards to the chapter facility. Therefore, it is extremely important that the facility manager be properly educated on all the local fire and health codes as well as proper crisis management protocol. Below is a list of steps that should be undertaken at the onset of each academic term:

  • All smoke detectors and fire alarm systems should be checked by qualified professional (i.e. a fire marshal). A log recording these inspections should be kept in the Health & Safety Officer and the House Manager’s notebook.
  • All fire extinguishers should be inspected by a qualified professional (i.e. a fire marshal). Any extinguishers that failed inspection should be replaced immediately.
  • Emergency fire procedures should be developed and posted throughout the chapter house and give to each member.
  • Fire drills should be a routine practice that should be conducted with the Health & Safety Officer, House manager and local fire department. The members should be instructed on the proper emergency routes.

Tips to Live By

  1. No smoking in the chapter house. This is careless and just plain stupid.
  2. Do not overload the electrical circuits. Electrical fires usually result from improper use of electrical outlets.
  3. Install and maintain the proper alarm systems. Smoke and heat detectors are cheap, yet effective. The chapter should replace the batteries every six months.
  4. Have the furnace and heating systems inspected by a licensed professional.
  5. Store combustibles away from heating and furnace areas.
  6. Do not keep flammables in the house. Store paints, mineral spirits, turpentine, gasoline and all other flammables outside in a well-ventilated area.
  7. Use wood burning fireplaces with extreme care. Have the chimney cleaned periodically and do not use flammable liquids to start the fire.
  8. Use extreme caution with portable heaters. Ensure that nothing flammable is placed on or around the portable heaters.
  9. Keep the chapter house clean. A cluttered house can add fuel to a fire and impedes escape.
  10. Schedule regular safety inspections. The local fire department or university officials can help in the safety inspections.
  11. Comply with fire codes and regulations. While it is utterly impossible for each member to know all fire codes and regulations, it is important the chapter have a professional inspect the chapter house for any violations of the aforementioned policies. (i.e. the fire marshal)
  12. Provide and maintain proper fire extinguishers. Extinguishers should be well marked and readily available throughout the house. Extinguishers should also be inspected at least every six months.
  13. Do not allow candles or incense to burn in the chapter house.

Surviving a Chapter House Fire

It’s important to know that few people burn to death in a fire. Most casualties are from smoke and poisonous gas inhalation and panic. If the chapter has an escape plan and use it, the chances of survival are greatly increased.

Getting out of your room:

  1. Get to the door! If there is any evidence of smoke in the room, crawl to the door to avoid smoke inhalation.
  2. Feel the door with the palm of your hand. If the door knob is hot, don’t open it. If the door knob is not hot, open cautiously.
  3. Check the hall. If the hallway is clear, walk to the nearest exit.
  4. If there is smoke in the hallway, crawl to the nearest exit.
  5. Close the door in the room to protect the personal belongings left behind.
  6. Stay close to the wall to count doorways. If the first exit is blocked, proceed to the alternate exit.
  7. Walk down to the ground level. Hold onto the handrail for protection against smoke and exiting occupants.
  8. If fire or smoke is dense at lower level, walk up to clear air or to the roof if it is accessible.

What if you are trapped in your room?

  1. Open the window to vent the room if there is any smoke.
  2. If you are on the first or second floors, you may be able to drop to the ground safely. If you are up any higher you are usually advised to stay put and wait for assistance from the fire fighters.
  3. Tell someone where you are. If your phone works, call for help.
  4. Hang a bed sheet out the window to alert fire fighters, but do not try to climb down the sheet.
  5. If you have a sink, fill it with water. Wet towels and sheets and put them around doors and cracks to prevent smoke from seeping into the room.
  6. If you have a bathroom fan, turn it on to help clear the room of smoke.

House Security and General Safety

It’s important to have a safe chapter house. Unfortunately, cases of arson, vandalism and theft are not unknown to fraternities. For a safer house, consider implementing these practices below:

  • A locked house is a safer house. It may seem to be an inconvenience but it will bring many safety benefits. Give every brother a key or consider using a combination lock.
  • Keep all ground access windows locked.
  • Let people knock. Fraternities are private property. Do not allow strangers to roam the house.
  • Give copies of the key or combination to alumni, such as your chapter advisor and house corporation officers.
  • Have the aforementioned alumni check the house during school breaks when there may be no one living in the house.
  • During school breaks, shut off the water supply for the house, and keep the thermostat set at a temperature which will prevent the pipes from freezing.
  • Install outdoor lighting. Floodlights and security lights are the best way to deter chapter house vandalism and arson.
  • Snow and ice – keep sidewalks, outside steps and walkways clear of snow, ice and debris.
  • Roof and balconies – keep members and guests off the roof and balconies unless the roof and balconies are reinforced and have railings to ensure proper safety

Ensuring the safety of your chapter house takes the constant assessment and maintenance of all of the items above. Establishing a safe place for your brothers to live and gather should be a point of pride right up there with the pride of owning a house itself!

Jarrett M. Way

Director of Educational Content & Strategy