Sororities and fraternities around campus could be subject to additional fire safety regulations under an ordinance Vermillion’s City Council is currently considering.
Members of the city council heard the first reading to amend Ordinance 1336 Monday night, which would require all existing and future Greek houses in Vermillion to install a key lock box on the exteriors of the facilities.
The lock boxes, known as rapid entry systems, provide emergency access to properties in the case where fire officials are called to the scene in response to an emergency situation. Keys, key codes and other important entry items can be stored in the lock boxes.
“When something is occurring, we need to get in very quickly, and any delay could cost someone their life or damage their property even more,” said Vermillion Fire Chief Shannon Draper.
Draper said the Vermillion Fire Department uses KNOX-BOX rapid entry systems, which have been installed in about 30 schools, medical facilities, businesses and homes throughout town.
Ordinance 1336 currently requires all commercial and industrial structures, multifamily homes, governmental buildings and nursing care facilities to have the KNOX-BOX systems in place. If the proposed amendment passes city council, fraternity and sorority facilities would be added to the list.
Laura Roof, director of Sorority/Fraternity Life at USD, was one of the main proponents for making the change to Ordinance 1336.
“If there is a fire in one of the facilities, really the only way to get in is to ring the doorbell or knock the door down. If the fire alarm is already going off, the doorbell is not going to do anything for you,” Roof said. “Breaking a door or window puts our fire safety professionals at risk and does damage to the facility.”
Roof said she works closely with Vermillion’s fire inspector, Matt Taggart, to make sure the Greek houses are up to code, and one of their main concerns is a lack of entry points at each of the facilities.
Draper also acknowledged this problem.
“The sorority and fraternity buildings are not constructed, like, say hotels that have multiple access points. It’s a home,” he said. “Really, the only quickest and safest access we have is through the front or side door. And that’s where we need that code.”
The proposed amendment to Ordinance 1336 will be heard again for a second reading at the city council’s April 18 meeting, where it can then be officially voted on. If passed, the updated ordinance is set to go into effect May 13.
Each individual sorority and fraternity would have to order a KNOX-BOX system, but Draper said the VFD crews can help install it. The lock boxes must be installed within 15 feet of the doorway for quick, easy access, he added.
Roof said there has been general support from all of the Greek houses, but one of the common questions she’s been getting has to do with security and if the rapid entry systems compromise that. Draper said he gets this question often as well.
“The key (to open the KNOX-BOX) is in a secure box inside the fire truck,” Draper said. “It doesn’t unlock unless there is an emergency and is unlocked by the dispatch center. So we don’t even have access to the key at all times. We only have access to the key during an emergency.”
He added once dispatch has unlocked the box, every action is tracked with a recording system.
John Prescott, Vermillion’s city manager, and Draper said while they can’t say for sure, they expect the amendment to Ordinance 1336 to pass.
“They (rapid entry systems) can help in a scenario where it’s a lifesaving thing,” Prescott said. “It’s just one more aspect to help keep the individuals and the property as safe as they can.”
For Roof, taking as much fire safety precautionary measures as possible hits close to home. She said she was once on a campus where two men died from a fraternity house fire.
“I know how quickly a fraternity can go up in flames for some of the simplest stuff that we don’t even think about on a day-to-day basis and how that impacts a community,” she said. “I’m very serious about fire safety, and I want the community to be serious about it and be as ready as possible …”