New capacities may affect house parties

Beth McHenry

Last week, Safety Coordinator Mark Musser completed an ongoing project to improve capacity regulations in small houses, buildings on the Quad, and Hiett Hall.
Capacity figures were calculated for each building and common room much more precisely than previous methods. The new capacities may inconvenience students hosting parties, but Musser and Dean of Students Nancy Truesdell both believe that the new codes will improve the safety of campus events.
The new regulations, discussed last Thursday in a meeting between Truesdell and Physical Plant, do not change any of the rules governing Large Group Housing or parties in these areas.
Security’s involvement in regulating these capacities will also not change. The only changes made were to the numbers themselves, which now more accurately measure how many people can safely evacuate from the common areas in case of an emergency.
According to Musser, these numbers will now be used to “educate party planners about appropriate amounts of people in various locations.” Previously, any registered party on campus was given an estimate from the Office of Residence Life or Campus Activities of how many people should be present; now that estimated number is more accurate in regard to safety.
With reports of fires at colleges and in nightclubs over the past several years, many colleges have been revising their fire codes. Truesdell says that some have chosen to prohibit parties in small houses altogether, and emphasizes that Lawrence administrators are striving to improve safety without resorting to these actions.
Both Truesdell and Musser anticipate only minor changes to party life and emphasize that the changes were made as a much-needed safety precaution. Truesdell attests that more accurate measurements should have been made years ago and that the capacity numbers used previously were probably unsafe.
Some of the most significant changes occurred in small houses with basements. In basements with low ceilings and divided rooms a “0” capacity has been assigned for holding parties.
Although small gatherings of a few people are possible, the university will not support official parties in these areas. Musser’s report states, “These unfinished basements with limited lighting and maze-like design could hinder rescue efforts that are more common during parties involving alcohol.”
The most affected parties will likely be those held in fraternities and other Quad houses. Capacities of these buildings have been reduced by as many as 100 people.
In contrast, most small houses have the same or very similar capacities. In a few cases, the capacities for small houses were increased significantly as some common areas were not included in the old measurements.
To determine the new safety capacities, Musser used information from the Life Safety Code Handbook and Chapter 14 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code. He measured capacity on a basis of 10 square feet per person, the formula used to govern banquet halls, dance halls and dining rooms. The number of exits also limits capacity. Safety codes dictate that capacity is limited to 25 people per exit door.
Often, the area figures used in the old capacities were incorrect. Maps of the houses used by the university have different scales from house to house. Many did not specify exact measurements, only an imprecise measure of the area.
Musser “inspected, measured and took pictures” of each room to better determine their true area. This process took time, but Musser is now confident that the new numbers are much more accurate, although he offers to redo any room that students deem unfairly measured.
In addition, Musser accounted for furniture within the rooms. Large furniture can hinder people from exiting and also takes up floor space. Old capacities did not take these objects into consideration.
Musser says that current capacities used by the administration consider the furniture in the room, but that capacities could change if furniture was removed or changed.
Musser adds that although the Appleton Fire Department regulates parties of over 100 people, such as Phi Tau’s Le Brawl, they were largely uninvolved in revising the capacities.
As the regulations themselves have not changed, the new capacity expectations became effective immediately following Thursday’s meeting.
Musser and Truesdell both conclude by hoping that student parties are not significantly affected by the new capacities. Says Musser, “Hopefully, all is well in the party world. My main concern is just to make sure that everyone has a safe exit.