The Sacred Purpose Blog

Editor’s note:  This is a guest post from Peter Mulvihill, Epsilon/Worcester Polytechnic Institute, ’78. Pete is the chapter advisor for our Beta Phi chapter at Nevada.  He is currently serving as the Nevada State Fire Marshal. We are grateful for Pete’s expertise and enthusiasm to write a five-part blog series about fire safety.  This is a relevant reminder about the very real dangers of fires in fraternity houses.  Thank you, Pete, for helping to protect our brothers.


The second largest cause of civilian fire injuries in fraternity houses is from incidents involving heating equipment.  Although the number of fires each year from heating equipment is small – only 100 of the 3,810 fires annually in dormitories, fraternities, sororities and barracks – they account for approximately 23 percent of all fire injuries and approximately $1-2 million in property damages each year.

Factors leading to heating equipment fires include:

  • Use of portable space heaters
  • Lack of maintenance of fuel burners or boilers
  • Use of unattended equipment
  • Radiant heat is the leading heat source for fires

Heating equipment is necessary and vital for comfort and safety.  What can you do to protect your brothers from fires caused by heating equipment?

  • Service heating equipment every fall.Opening a chapter house for the fall semester means turning everything back on and preparing for the coming winter months. Have the furnace/boiler serviced by a licensed technician. Not only will the technician spot and correct safety problems before they manifest themselves, they will adjust the burners and systems for the most efficient operation saving money that is just going up the chimney flue.
  • Portable space heaters are no substitute for a working furnace/boiler!Not only do they waste energy and overload electrical circuits, but clothing, draperies, upholstered furniture or bed clothes cannot tolerate the radiant heat from some units for any extended period of time.
  • Cold rooms.If a portion of the house is routinely cold, check the operation of the building’s heating system. Check for closed valves, collapsed or obstructed ductwork, inappropriate thermostat locations, and other problems. Often the local utility company or your heating contractor will provide a complimentary energy survey of your house with recommendations for effective and efficient operation.
  • Emergency heat is sometimes needed.Occasionally, even with the best of maintenance and planning, heating systems will fail requiring major, extended repairs or replacement. This can be particularly difficult in the middle of a severe cold weather period. The need to keep water pipes from freezing and causing further damage now becomes vital. Consult with your Health and Safety Advisor, campus safety professionals, and the local fire department, if necessary, about providing temporary heat in your house. In extreme cases where temporary heat may not be feasible or possible, have a plan to drain water pipes and shutdown other sensitive equipment for the duration of the repairs to the heating system.
  • Fireplaces need cleaning, too. Fireplaces provide an attractive atmosphere, especially during the height of winter. They also provide a potential safety hazard if not properly maintained. If your chapter house has a wood burning fireplace, have the chimney, flue, and fire box inspected and cleaned by a chimney sweep every fall as part of the opening of a house for the coming school year. Gaps and breaks in the flue can leak heat and smoke into concealed spaces within the building structure, carbon monoxide can infiltrate other parts of the house and attic fires can present significant challenges to fire suppression personnel with extensive, unavoidable water damage cascading down through a house.
  • Consider converting inefficient and air polluting wood burning fireplaces to a gas fired appliance for reduced cost, decreased heat loss, and improved safety. Gas fireplaces operate at lower temperatures, often use outside air for combustion avoiding the need to draw up the chimney warm air from inside the house and eliminate the hassle and hazard of ash and ember disposal.

Stay warm next winter, grab an extra sweater if you need to, and enjoy the fire in the fireplace, not standing on the sidewalk looking up at your chapter house.

In our next article, we will discuss electrical and lighting equipment fires.


Statistics are quoted from “Structure Fires in Dormitories, Fraternities, Sororities and Barracks,” by Richard Campbell, August 2013, published by the National Fire Protection Association.  The complete report can be found on their website, under research reports, or at this link:


Additional safety tips can be found in the Resource Guide for the Vice President of Health and Safety and at

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