The Berkeley Fire Department is working with students to ensure fire safety measures are taken at group housing locations, particularly during parties. Photo: Emilie Raguso

It’s been more than 25 years since a fire swept through a Berkeley fraternity house in 1990, killing three UC students. And more than 20 years since a 1997 fire in a different fraternity injured four students and caused major damage.

In the years after these devastating events, fire safety requirements were ramped up at large student homes in Berkeley, including requiring sprinkler systems.

Today, these efforts continue. In recent months, the city and campus community have embarked on a collaborative push to improve fire safety in large group homes, in particular, before special events or parties.

“Our first priority is always life safety, and we want to strike a balance between engaging the students and making sure parties are safe,” said Berkeley’s acting fire chief, Dave Brannigan. “At the same time, if we’re going to charge inspection fees we want to make sure they cover our costs as much as possible.”

Before a group home such as a fraternity, sorority or co-op can hold a large party (50 people or more), it needs a fire department “indoor entertainment events” permit, which is based on an inspection.

Data presented to the City Council in May showed a majority, 94.5%, of 2017 Berkeley “indoor entertainment” applicants failed their first fire inspection, with most having multiple violations. In some cases, several re-inspections were required before houses passed.

The fire department asked the council then to increase indoor entertainment inspection fees from $93 per event to $196, to make up for revenue gaps between staff time working with the houses and fees collected. These fees are based on 15-minute inspection times. Most inspections take longer, according to the department.

The department also asked to create a $98 fee for re-inspections, which isn’t charged now.

The council decided to carry the matter over to September to allow more student input.

Students lined up to speak about fire safety measures at UC Berkeley group housing at the City Council meeting on Sept. 12. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Last month, after hearing from a variety of students, the council directed the fire department to work harder to educate operators of large student homes on how to pass inspections, rather than increasing fees.

But the council also said it would revisit the issue in late November (90 days from the Sept. 12 meeting) to see if further action is needed.

Early signs indicate the educational effort may be working.

“I think we’ll continue to see more positive change now that we’re working more closely with the city council and the fire department,” wrote Eric Berger, President of UC Berkeley’s Interfraternity Council (IFC).

Already, since the May meeting, the Interfraternity Council has established a new executive board position to focus on fire prevention. And, with input from students, the fire department created a digital indoor event application and self-inspection checklist, evolving from paper.

“Poor compliance with fire protocol at the time of inspections was identified as a driving factor for the proposed fee increase. However, over the past year IFC has made efforts to address and improve the readiness of our chapters at the times of inspection,” Berger said.

“BFD has also implemented measures in the last few months to help expedite the application/inspection process. We aim to continue this productive trend in the next calendar year.”

Zach Gamlieli, president of Berkeley Student Cooperative, agrees: “I think it’s going well,” he wrote in an email.

“I’ve already had a meeting with [acting] Fire Chief Brannigan where we brainstormed ways to better educate students and property owners. I know that he’s planning to meet with other student leaders and that we will all be working together to update City Council after the 90 days have passed.”

Most students speaking in September, including Berger and Gamlieli, strongly opposed the fee increase, claiming it would push more parties underground, with less control over safety. They also said higher fees were discriminatory against low-income students, many who chose group living for the lower costs.

Some also questioned the accuracy of the fire department’s statistics on indoor entertainment inspection staff time, calculations the proposed increases were based on.  The students, however, didn’t challenge the low compliance numbers for first inspections.

Brannigan said the fire department should shoulder more responsibility for helping houses pass their initial inspection. The aim, he says, is for students to clearly understand the required steps to make a space safe for a party, and to complete these before the fire department comes to inspect.

“We think we could do a better job of educating beforehand; give them better tools to understand what we ‘re looking for,” Brannigan said. He also agreed there’s room for improvement in the data collection on inspection staff time, and is tackling this.

Safety improved since 1990s

Brannigan  adds that he doesn’t view the indoor entertainment permit issue as a sign of large-scale fire hazards at fraternities. Since the fires in the 1990s, safety has improved, he said. “I don’t think there’s a large systematic problem. . .   We required them to have sprinkler systems and they got them and we inspect them.”

But clearly, party-preparedness needed buoying, he said. “It’s when they have party that we’re expecting a high load in the house and they rearrange things, and they might block an entrance, and have flammable decorations and things like that.”

Some students support the idea of the city charging for re-inspections. In fact, Gamlieli from the co-ops thinks it puts weight exactly where needed.

“We believe the Fire Department should start charging for re-inspections, if they’re looking to recoup revenue, since that places the economic burden on the properties that are not passing their initial inspections,” Gamlieli said.

“Which is justifiable as the extra time spent on re-inspections is a major factor in the financial losses to BFD incurred by the inspection process.”

Partnering with students could create innovative campus fire prevention, Brannigan said. “UC students are some of the brightest in the country and they’re coming to us with very good ideas and a sense of the responsibility they have,” he said.

“They were surprised to see a potential doubling of the initial fee and wanted a more collaborative process.”

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...