ISSUE AREA The State Fire Marshal's Office does not Investigate Complaints or
Conduct Oversight of Licensed Electricians, and Uses Fees from Electrical
Licenses to Perform Other Functions
The duties of the Fire Marshal were amended by the Legislature on April 8, 1989 to include the licensure of electricians. Article 3b [§ 29-3B-1 et seq.], Chapter twenty-nine of the West Virginia Code states that the purpose of this amendment is to
protect the health, safety and welfare of the public as well as public and private
property by assuring the competence of those who perform electrical work through
licensure by the state fire marshal of the state fire commission.
An inquiry of the State Fire Marshal's Office revealed that the Office has no oversight function for this licensure process. The office does develop tests, administer tests, issue and renew licenses, renew licenses, and protect licensed electricians and the public from encroachment by unlicensed electricians. However, there is no oversight for licensed electricians.
The State has greater than 10,500 licensed electricians. Since the Office began the mandatory state licensing electricians in 1989, it has never held a disciplinary hearing, or suspended or revoked a license. In addition, there are no continuing education requirements despite the fact that there were about 200 significant changes in the National Electrical Code in 1996 alone. Further, license revenues, which amounted to over $540,000 in FY97, are subsidizing other activities of the State Fire Marshal's Office.
There are many threats resulting from the lack of oversight of licensed electricians. These include potential loss of life, health, property and public confidence. Nationally, there were 40,000 fires caused by problems with home electrical wiring. It is critical that public confidence in the licensure of occupations and professions be maintained by providing a channel for complaints regarding performance or questions of competence. As long as the potential loss of life and property exits due to the conduct of electricians, oversight should be a condition of licensure, as is the case with architects, professional engineers, land surveyors, psychologists, social workers, physicians, and electricians in other states.
This lack of oversight has been caused by the Office's perceived lack of resources and authority. Under the State Fire Code (an independent and unrelated statute) personal care homes caring for three or less patients, buildings used wholly as dwelling houses for no more than two families, and farm structures are excluded from its general provisions to protect privacy rights. The State Fire Marshal's Office has interpreted this exclusion of the Fire Code to prevent it from inspecting complaints involving work performed in these types of structures. However, a legal opinion by Legislative Services disagrees that the State Fire Code encumbers the State Fire Marshal's authority provided under West Virginia Code § 29-3B-1 et seq., to suspend or revoke an electrician's license if that person incompetently or unsafely performs electrical work, and concludes "the fire marshal may perform those steps necessary to make this determination." Other causes include a perceived lack of funding, even though the Office collected greater than $540,000 in FY97 for licensure functions, much of which is used for other purposes; and a perception that the Office must directly witness the act or have video graphic evidence to pursue a hearing.
Given the relative lack of attention this important program has received under the State Fire Marshal's Office, it is recommended that the Legislature consider establishing a separate division within the Board of Registration for Professional Engineers to assume all electrician licensure responsibilities, using existing resources as collected by the State Fire Marshal. Or, if the State Fire Marshal is to retain this authority, complaints against licensed electricians or persons illegally practicing the occupation of electrician should be fully investigated, hearings should be held, licenses should be suspended or revoked as appropriate, and records regarding those proceedings should be maintained, and reported to the Legislature annually.