According to the West Virginia Fire Commission, the mission of the 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." However, West Virginia consistently has one of the highest fire death rates in the country. The Fire Commission acknowledges in its annual reports, that "West Virginia continues to experience a grossly unacceptable fire death rate per capita." Further study shows that between 1994 and 1998, 93% of all structure fire deaths occur in one and two family dwellings, an area where the Fire Commission has no direct enforcement authority. Therefore, in order to impact this area, the Commission needs to educate the public and ensure that Fire Departments are operating effectively.
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 statistic analysis.
One way to impact the fire death rate in areas outside of the Commission's enforcement authority is through public awareness programs. However, the Commission only has one staff member in charge of public education, and overall, the Commission devotes less than 6% of total resources to public education. Furthermore, the Commission has devoted very little resources in giving away smoke detectors which increase the chances of surviving a fire by 50%. Also, much of the educational efforts of the Commission to date have been focused in areas which fall under the direct enforcement jurisdiction of the Commission where the death rate is low, and not in areas outside of the Commission's enforcement authority where the death rate is high. Much of the educational efforts of the Commission have also been focused in Kanawha County, an area of the state which has a lower fire death rate than other areas of the state. In essence, the State Fire Commission is missing the bigger picture with respect to reducing fire losses in the State.
The Fire Commission does not conducting enough detailed analysis of West Virginia's fire statistics as required by law. The Commission conducts a limited analysis but has not developed comprehensive state or county profiles which would be useful in targeting specific educational needs. The Commission should also 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.
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. Such a plan should be comprehensive in assessing the needs and effectiveness of the 446 recognized fire departments, as well as identifying specific public education needs throughout the State. Currently, the Commission has no such plan in place, however, it indicates that many if not all of the items mentioned in the law are addressed at some level. However, this review indicates that many of the items required to be assessed in the Fire Prevention and Control plan are not being addressed. Because the Commission has not developed a fire prevention and control plan, the State does not have a formalized strategy to reduce the State's high fire death rate.
As mandated by law, the Commission is charged with establishing standards for fire departments which ensure that each fire department is capable of providing the maximum amount of fire protection possible for any given fire service area. However, only two of five standards have been established. The Commission performs evaluations on fire departments to ensure that Fire Departments are conforming to these two standards, but the Commission is currently reviewing less than 10% of recognized fire departments each year. A survey conducted by a private organization indicates that there are 38 fire districts that were evaluated as having less than minimum recognized protection. However, the State Fire Commission does not receive the individual reports for each fire district that list the deficiencies in these areas. Such information is necessary in assessing the State's fire protection needs.
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. The Commission indicated it made attempts to obtain the necessary funding from the Legislature to pay the fee. The Legislative Auditor's Office was unable to determine the exact amount of the payments that have not been made because of data limitations. However, it is reasonable to estimate that a large number of the 9,000 reported fires each year are reported from paid fire departments and incorporated areas, which means they are ineligible for the fee. Therefore, the actual amount that would be paid by the Commission would be considerably less than $90,000 ($10 times 9,000 reports) a year. It is possible that the amount could be about $25,000 or less. Although this amount is relatively small, there are many fire departments in unincorporated areas that could use any funding that they might receive.