PRELIMINARY PERFORMANCE REVIEW OF THE
State Fire Commission
West Virginia's High Fire Death
Rate requires the State Fire
Commission to devote more
Resources to Public Awareness
Programs and Fire Statistics Analysis
The State Fire Commission does not have
a Plan to Reduce the State's High Fire
Introduction and Background
West Virginia has one of the Highest Fire Related Death Rates in the Country
According to the United States Fire Administration (USFA), the three leading causes of fire related deaths in the United States are smoking, heating, and arson. Furthermore, according to the USFA, deaths per fire in manufactured housing are approximately twice that of other dwellings, and the aged population is subject to higher fire death rates. West Virginia demographics place it at a high risk to the leading causes of fire related deaths, and not surprisingly has resulted in the state having one of the highest fire death rates in the country.
Smoking Related Deaths
According to the USFA, "About 1,000 deaths, 3,000 serious injuries, and several billion dollars in costs of property loss, health care, and pain and suffering result each year in the U.S. from fires started by dropped cigarettes." Furthermore, mishandling of cigarettes accounts for 23 percent of all fire related deaths each year. Most fires caused by the misuse of cigarettes are caused when individuals drop cigarettes on upholstered furniture or bedding, often by someone who has been drinking. Given the fact that West Virginia has a high fire death rate, it should come as no surprise that West Virginia has the fifth highest tobacco use rate among adults age 18 and over.
Alternative Heating Sources
Heating fires account for 19 percent of all fire related deaths in the United States. Heating includes central heating, fixed and portable heating units, fireplaces and chimneys, and water heaters. Furthermore, according to the USFA, the majority of fires from alternative heating occur in the chimney or fireplace area. People with lower income are more likely to use alternative heating sources. According to the U.S. Bureau of Census, West Virginia has the lowest per capita income of all fifty states.
As was previously stated, deaths per fire in manufactured housing are approximately twice that of other dwellings. Manufactured housing also has a much greater share of fire deaths (11 percent) relative to its share of fires (4 percent). According to the Manufactured Housing Institute, West Virginia ranks fourth among all states with the highest number of manufactured houses per capita. Each year the West Virginia Fire Marshal's Office investigates an average of six fire related deaths in manufactured homes.
West Virginia has the oldest population per capita of all fifty states. According to the USFA, people over age 55 have a higher fire death rate than the average population. Table 1 shows the death rates per million population for the average as well as aged population over 55 years of age.
Aged Adults VS National Average Deaths per Million Population
|60 - 64||22.1|
|65 - 69||23.1|
|70 - 74||32.9|
|75 - 79||40.0|
|80 - 84||43.6|
|85 or older||81.8|
Issue Area 1: West Virginia's high fire death rate requires the State Fire Commission to devote more resources to public awareness programs and fire statistics analysis.
The Office of the West Virginia Fire Marshal was first created in 1909. In 1976, the West Virginia Fire Commission was created and the Fire Marshal's Office was placed under the jurisdiction of the Fire Commission. According to the Commission, "The mission of the State Fire Commission is to improve the quality of life of the citizens of West Virginia through leadership, development and administration of fire safety programs that reduce loss of life and property." The State Fire Marshal is responsible for implementing the policies of the State Fire Commission.
A major outcome to be achieved by the State Fire Commission is to reduce the loss of life due to fire. However, according to the United States Fire Administration (USFA), West Virginia is second only to Alaska in the number of civilian (non-firefighter) fire related deaths per 1000 fires in the 1990's. According to the Fire Marshal's Office (FMO), "West Virginia continues to experience a grossly unacceptable (fire death) rate per capita."(1) Figure 1 shows West Virginia versus the National average for civilian fire related deaths per 1000 fires.(2)
Compared to the national average, West Virginia's fire death rate for several years is two to three times higher. Figure 2 shows West Virginia versus surrounding states fire related deaths per 1000 fires. The graph shows that West Virginia consistently has the highest rate of deaths due to fires among surrounding states. In many years, West Virginia is significantly higher than the other states.(3)
Most Fire Deaths Occur in Occupancies where the FMO Has No Direct Jurisdiction
Between 1994 and 1998, nearly 70% of all structure fires and 93% of
all structure fire related deaths occurred in one and two family dwellings
(see Figure 3). The State Fire Commission has no direct authority over
one and two family dwellings because these dwellings are excluded by
law from the provisions of inspection and review, as well as fire code
enforcement. Figure 3 shows the percentage of structure fires and deaths
that occurred in one and two family dwellings compared to those structures
where the FMO has direct authority. For the 1994-1998 time period, only
of all fire related deaths occurred in occupancies where the Fire Marshal has direct authority to review plans and inspect premises for fire code violations. This relatively small percentage of fire deaths is an indication of the value of inspections and plan reviews. On the other hand, nearly 93% of fire deaths occurred in occupancies where the Fire Marshal has no direct jurisdiction.
Greater Emphasis on Public Awareness Programs is Needed
Since the State has demographic characteristics that make it susceptible
to a high fire death rate as mentioned previously, and because most deaths
occur in occupancies in which the FMO has no jurisdiction, the FMO needs
to provide a greater emphasis on public awareness programs. Also, the FMO
needs to be more involved in encouraging a greater use of smoke detectors.
According to the State Fire Commission:
While many of these deaths were either directly or indirectly caused by alcohol/drug abuses, the majority were preventable through increased fire safety awareness by the public, use of smoke detectors, statewide fire code enforcement, and increased media attention to fire safety as an important year-round topic.(4)
he United States Fire Administration also indicates that smoke alarms have accounted for a significant part of the decrease in reported fires and fire deaths since the mid 1970's.(5)
Despite the acknowledgment by the FMO that smoke detectors and greater public awareness would prevent many fire deaths, the FMO's efforts to date have been limited in these areas, due primarily to a perceived lack of resources. For example, the FMO has participated in a limited manner in smoke detector giveaways. In FY 1998, the FMO collaborated with WOWK TV-13 on a segment entitled "Learn not Burn." This segment emphasized the necessity for having a working smoke detector. The FMO was able to purchase 300 smoke detectors through donations. These smoke detectors were distributed to area fire departments to deliver the detectors to families that the fire departments knew needed the detectors. Also, the FMO has distributed five smoke detectors each day of the WV State Fair during the last three years. This amounts to about 45 smoke detectors given away in each of the last three years.
However, when you consider that in West Virginia over 1,000 fires are reported annually for 1 and 2 family dwellings in which no smoke detectors were present, 45 smoke detectors a year is relatively small. Figure 4 shows smoke detector performance for FY 1996 through FY 1998. In 35% to 40% of reported fires for one and two family dwellings, smoke detectors were not present. That percentage may be higher because in nearly 30% of reported fires, the fire were severe enough where it could not be determined if smoke detectors were present.
Furthermore, the FMO only has one Public Education Officer and this staff member is charged with additional duties of inspection and enforcement. The position of Public Education Officer was established only recently in 1996. Much of the public education efforts of the FMO prior to 1996 were primarily delivered to workers in inspected facilities (schools, nursing homes, etc.) where the death rate is relatively low.
The Public Education Officer was posted as an "Assistant Fire Marshal II," and shares the same duties and responsibilities as other Assistant Fire Marshals which includes but is not limited to: fire prevention, fire safety inspection, arson/explosives investigations, and any training pertinent to those areas. According to the Public Education Officer:
Since my employment as Assistant Fire Marshal/Public Education Officer, I have assisted in fire/arson investigations and in explosives recognition classes, and have conducted building inspections when requested. My position as an Assistant Fire Marshal differs from the civil service description only in that I do not work under the supervision of a Field Deputy Fire Marshal, and my assigned geographic area includes all 55 counties.
When you consider the salary and benefits of the Public Education Officer, and other expenses for public education, six percent of the State Fire Commission's budget goes towards public education. However, since the Public Education Officer's duties include other activities outside the scope of public education, the State Fire Commission devotes less than 6 percent of total resources toward public education.
The types of activities the Public Education Officer is involved in are as follows:
However, much of the public education effort is once again in regulated facilities (schools, nursing homes, care facilities, etc.) where the death rate is low, and the majority of the public education work has been centered in Kanawha County. According to the Public Education Officer, there are several reasons for this:
According to the FMO, the role of the Public Education Officer is not
necessarily the delivery of education but rather the design and implementation
of educational fire safety programs.
Average Fire Deaths Per 1000 Fires by County, 1994 - 1998
|County||Deaths per 1000||County||Deaths per 1000|
Greater Analysis of West Virginia
Fire Statistics is Needed
Another area which would assist the FMO's
public education efforts is a comprehensive analysis of West Virginia's
Fire Loss statistics. This analysis should detail such facts as what areas
of the state are at greater risk, and the probable causes of these fires.
The State Fire Commission collects a variety of West Virginia fire statistics
for the USFA. The Commission is to be commended in having the highest
reporting rate of its fire statistics to the USFA in the country. Ninety-six
percent of the State's fire departments submit fire reports to the Fire
West Virginia's statistics are compiled
into a national report issued by the USFA. Although the national statistics
provide useful information that is common for all states, a detailed analysis
is necessary on the state level to custom fit West Virginia's fire loss
initiatives. Furthermore, such an analysis is required by law. According
to WV Code §29-3-11(b), the FMO shall conduct "critical
analysis and evaluation of West Virginia's fire loss statistics for determination
of problems and solutions." In other words, there is a need to have
an understanding of fire related characteristics that are specific to West
Virginia. The statistics to perform a critical analysis are collected by
the FMO; however, it has not given priority to develop a comprehensive
county or statewide profile. These profiles could indicate a greater need
for public education in specific subjects in specific counties. Statistics
that could be useful in evaluating areas in the state that may have a greater
need of public education are:
There has been limited analysis of fire loss statistics conducted over the last five years. Currently all fire loss statistics are transmitted to the United States Fire Administration and the National Fire Prevention Association for comparison and analysis. This office uses these statistics to "pinpoint" certain occupancies where fire deaths have occurred throughout the state.
Smoke Detector Use and Public Education Have Been Proven Successful
One such program that was utilized effectively
was "Get Alarmed, South Carolina." According to the USFA, "The program
has been credited with helping the State record the lowest number of fire
deaths in five years and to begin to reverse a trend in recent years toward
higher and higher fire death rates."(6)
The program was initially started with an investment of $50,000 by the
South Carolina Fire Marshal's Office. Half of the money was used to purchase
smoke detectors and half of the money was put into public education. The
smoke detectors were distributed to area fire departments who agreed to
perform the following:
The program lasted for the two year period between 1986 to 1988. Table 3 indicates that the total number of fire deaths in South Carolina dropped to a significantly lower lever after the conclusion of the Get Alarmed program. According to the USFA:
The results achieved in the first two full years of the "Get Alarmed, South Carolina" program are eye opening. More than 25,000 smoke detectors -- five times the number originally funded by the state -- were placed in homes throughout the state, and more than two-thirds of the state's 700 fire departments got involved in smoke detector installation and maintenance programs in their communities. In addition, there is a broader awareness among the citizens of South Carolina about fire safety and the value of smoke detectors.(7)
The USFA also wrote that:
Limited funding does not have to be a barrier to development and implementation of good fire prevention and safety programs. If there is one thing the people of South Carolina demonstrated in the "Get Alarmed" program, it is that there is money out there. Seeking out and building relationships with civic and service organizations, other local agencies, and even individual benefactors is the key.(8)
South Carolina Fire Deaths
1986 - 1999
|Source: South Carolina Fire Marshal Office|
The West Virginia Fire Commission should explore ways to increase public interest, and seek private grants and other funding sources to expand its smoke detector giveaways and public education programs.
There is concern that for several years West Virginia has had one of the highest fire death rates in the country. The State Fire Commission has indicated for several years that this distinction is "grossly unacceptable." However, the Commission's efforts to reduce the State's high fire death rate has not been commensurate with the concern. Most of these fire deaths are occurring in occupancies in which the Commission cannot directly impact through inspections or enforcement of fire safety regulations. The State Fire Commission acknowledges that greater public awareness, and greater use of smoke detectors would prevent many fire related deaths. Success in the state of South Carolina proves that this approach can work. However, the FMO has had limited involvement in smoke detector giveaways, and its public awareness programs have been restricted in the amount of resources and in the area of the state. The Commission's enforcement efforts have been successful in minimizing fire deaths in those occupancies where fire safety regulations can be enforced. However, the Commission is missing the bigger picture by not placing a greater emphasis on reducing fire deaths in occupancies where it has no enforcement authority.
Given the high death rate in West Virginia,
the FMO must enhance its efforts to educate the public. According to the
Many Americans believe "fires can only happen to other people - not to me and not in my home." Yet, over 80 percent of fire deaths occur in the home, most often claiming the lives of the young, the elderly and the disadvantaged. Fire kills more Americans than all natural disasters combined. Every year more than 5,000 people die in fires, over 25,000 are injured, and direct property loss is estimated at over $9 billion. Fortunately, most fire losses can be prevented through effective public education and awareness initiatives. [Emphasis added]
The State Fire Commission should also take greater measures to comply with the statutory requirement to perform a critical analysis of West Virginia fire loss statistics to identify problem areas and solutions. A wealth of statistics are collected by the FMO; however, a higher priority needs to be established to develop a comprehensive state and county profile of important fire statistics. This analysis would also facilitate the Commission's public awareness program. The Commission should consider exploring ways to encourage greater public interest, and seek private grants and other funding sources to enhance smoke detector giveaways and its public awareness programs.
The West Virginia Fire Commission should devote a greater amount of resources to educating the public in fire and burn prevention and encouraging greater smoke detector use.
The West Virginia Fire Commission should conduct more detailed analysis of state fire statistics to develop county fire loss profiles and a state fire loss profile.
The State Fire Marshal should attempt to obtain private grants to assist in expanding its smoke detector giveaway programs and its public education in fire and burn prevention.
Issue Area 2: The State Fire Commission does not have a comprehensive plan on how it intends to lower the State's high fire death rate.
By law (§29-3-9), the State Fire Commission is required to develop a Fire Prevention and Control plan which shall include, but not be limited to, a variety of issues related to local fire departments such as:
The Legislative Auditor asked the Commission if it had developed a Fire Prevention and Control plan. The Commission's response was that:
There is no actual "Fire Prevention and Control" plan enacted by the State Fire Commission. However, most if not all these areas of concern are addressed or evaluated at some level.
It is the Legislative Auditor's opinion that many of the areas required to be addressed in the Fire Prevention and Control plan are addressed, some by the Commission, and some are addressed by other entities. For example, the FMO indicated some of the areas are addressed by the Insurance Services Office (ISO). The Insurance Services Office is a supplier of statistical, actuarial, and underwriting information for the property/casualty insurance industry. ISO provides advisory services to more than 1,500 participating insurers and their agents. According to the Fire Marshal:
ISO conducts a very detailed analysis and evaluation of all respective fire departments in the state to determine a "benchmark" grading scale. This assigned grade (1 through 10, with 10 representing the low-end [poor] scale and 1 the top-end [good] scale) is used to determine the premium policy amounts for homeowners and businesses in West Virginia. ISO's evaluations are recognized nationally by the insurance industry and the state Insurance Commissioner as "the" authority on fire protection evaluations.
The Legislative Auditor's review of the ISO analysis indicates that many of the items required to be evaluated by the Commission are evaluated by ISO. For example, in assigning grades for fire districts, ISO evaluates water supply and water pressure, manpower and personnel needs, communications, equipment levels, and training. However, it is not clear that ISO evaluates response times, and ISO does not review public education, fire prevention programs or public participation. Furthermore, while the FMO does receive the total grading scores for fire districts, it does not receive any of the ISO reports for each district that indicate why ratings were assigned to certain fire districts. According to the FMO:
We do not receive any documents from ISO with regard to the rating assigned or any deficiencies that may have prevented the area from obtaining a better rating.
Receiving individual reports for each fire district that indicate any deficiencies would be helpful to the Commission. The Commission should develop a way that the local fire departments can provide their ISO reports to the Commission. The Commission also indicates that it has a cooperative arrangement with other state entities concerning fire training centers, and a fire service training facility is being developed at Jackson's Mill.
Although, many issues of a Fire Prevention and Control plan are being addressed at different levels and by several entities, there is no comprehensive written plan that coordinates and centralizes this information at the State level. While progress has been made in fire services at the local level, there still are significant needs. The Commission indicated that over the years, the number of fire districts that did not have a fire rating has been reduced from 156 to 6. However, there still are many areas in the State that the Commission indicates do not have a fire department. And according to the ISO analysis, West Virginia currently has 38 fire districts with a rating of 10, that is, less than the minimum recognized protection.
It would be beneficial to develop a plan, as required by law, that assesses the various fire protection needs throughout the state and identifies possible solutions to prevalent problems. This plan needs to gather information from the different sources to give a comprehensive statewide assessment of West Virginia's fire protection needs, and how the Commission intends to address these issues.
Standards for Fire Departments are Incomplete
As mandated by law, the Commission is charged with establishing the following standards for fire departments:
Commission Audits on Fire Department are a Small Number
As was previously stated, the FMO has established standards for fire departments with respect to training and equipment. The FMO performs evaluations on fire departments to ensure that Fire Departments are conforming to these standards. During these evaluations, the FMO routinely finds Fire Departments with officers that need additional training and equipment that needs replaced. However, the FMO only evaluates 10% or less of fire departments each year. This means that a fire department could use substandard equipment, or operate with firemen who do not have proper training for up to 10 years before being audited by the FMO. Table 4 shows the number of fire departments evaluated for the past six fiscal years.
Fire Departments Audited
|Fiscal Year||Fire Departments Audited|
However, some items required in the plan are not addressed by anyone, and the Commission has no knowledge of the deficiencies that are evaluated by the ISO. Certain standards required by law have not been established by the Commission, and the audits of fire departments are restricted to a relatively small number of fire departments each year, and they are restricted to only two standards.
It is clear from the audits conducted by the Commission, and by the grading scores assigned to fire districts by the ISO that there are important deficiencies in the delivery of fire protection services. However, there is no plan established by the Commission to address these issues. There also is no plan on identifying specific needs in various parts of the State, or developing public awareness programs tailored to address these specific needs. Consequently, the State Fire Commission does not have a coordinated plan on how it intends to reduce the State's high fire death rate, which at times is the second highest in the nation.
The West Virginia Fire Commission should develop a fire prevention and control plan as required by WV Code §29-3-9(f). This plan should be comprehensive in identify the Commission's strategy to reduce the State's high fire death rate.
The West Virginia Fire Commission should complete the requirement to establish the standards as required by WV Code §29-3-9(d). These standards should include minimum performance standards for response times, communications, minimum levels of water flow and pressure, and other performance standards necessary to accomplish improved fire protection and control.
The West Virginia Fire Commission should consider conducting a greater number of audits on fire departments.
The West Virginia Fire Commission should develop a process in which it can receive individual ISO reports from each fire district in the state.
Issue Area 3: The State Fire Commission is not paying fire departments to report fires as required by law.
According to WV Code §29-3-20, the Fire Commission is required to pay a $10 fee to fire departments for each fire reported. This fee is not applicable to any fire department that has a salaried fire chief or a fire chief that is paid a fee for each fire fought. Furthermore, the fee is not applicable to any fire department where the mayor of the municipality receives a salary in excess of $20 per year. Therefore, this $10 fee is limited to those fire departments that are composed entirely of volunteer members and are not in incorporated areas.
This fee has not been paid by the Commission to any fire department. The Commission has indicated that this fee is not being paid because money was never appropriated to pay the fee. According to the FMO:
These payments have never been made since the enactment of the Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1976. Requests for appropriations to comply with this provision were submitted by the State Fire Administrator beginning in the early 80's up until 1990. These requests for funds were never honored.
However, the amount of funding necessary to pay the fee would not be a significant amount. The Legislative Auditor's Office did not determine the exact amount of the payments that have not been made because of data limitations. However, the total number of fires that are reported each year is around 9,000. At $10 to be paid for each fire report, the maximum amount to be paid fire departments would be around $90,000 a year. It is reasonable to estimate that a large number of these reported fires were reported from paid fire departments and incorporated areas, which means they are not eligible for the fee. Therefore, the actual amount that would be paid by the Commission would be considerably less than $90,000. It is possible that the amount could be about $25,000 or less. Although the fee is relatively small and may not seem significant, there are many fire departments in unincorporated areas that could use any funding that they might receive.
The West Virginia Fire Commission should pay the $10 reporting fee to all eligible fire departments as required by law.
1. This statement has been made in the State Fire Commission's annual reports for five of the last six years (1994-1999).
West Virginia has the highest reporting rate of fire statistics of all states at 96 percent. While the national average reporting rate (53% in 1996) of states that report is not as high as West Virginia, it is not certain if this skews the comparison. This would depend on whether those areas of states that do not report fires and deaths are above, below or equal to their state's fire death rates.
3. Pennsylvania is one of 11 states that do not report fire statistics to the USFA. Ohio's reporting rate in 1996 was 75%, Kentucky's was 68%, Virginia's was 70%, and Maryland's was 92%.
4. State Fire Commission FY 1998-99 Annual Report, page 55.
5. United States Fire Administration, Fire in the United States, 1987-1996, p. 65. The greater use of smoke alarms has likely given residents enough warning to where they do not need to report a fire.
6. United States Fire Administration, Get Alarmed, South Carolina, p.1.
7. Ibid, p. 6.
8. Ibid, p.9.