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    Document Summary
    - Report Published -

    House Document No. 59
    PUBLICATION YEAR 1998

    Document Title
    Powers and Authority of the State and Local Fire Marshals

    Author
    Task Force

    Enabling Authority
    Appropriation Act - Item 93. C. (Regular Session, 1997)

    Executive Summary
    The 1997 Appropriations Act charged the Director of the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), in consultation with the State Fire Marshal and the Director of the Department of Fire Programs (DFP), with convening a Task Force to examine and report on several issues relating to the activities of the State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) and local fire marshals. Once it convened, the Task Force sought information from several sources, including the participants of five regional workshops held during August and September 1997, the results of a survey of other state fire marshals, and information received from organizations outside the fire community.

    The Task Force examined each of three specific areas identified in the Appropriations Act (and noted as I, II, and III below), considering the information provided by all sources, and developed the following recommendations.

    I. Evaluate the Powers of the State and Local Fire Marshals to Inspect Public Facilities and their Authority to Cite Violations of the Statewide Fire Prevention Code (SFPC) and Local Ordinances

    The Task Force concluded that current statutory provisions, at least nominally, establish adequate enforcement powers across the state, but that these powers are not always exercised uniformly. This lack of uniformity, which is rooted in the implementation mechanism the state has chosen and not the specific provisions of the SFPC, means that Virginians may experience significantly different levels of fire prevention services depending on where they live. Because of its concerns, and the potential for serious harm to the public, the Task Force recommends the following changes to assure the more uniform application of the provisions of the SFPC:

    Recommendation 1: Amend the Code of Virginia to grant local officials, under an agreement with the SFMO, broader authority to enforce the SFPC and relevant fire prevention ordinances at state-owned facilities.

    Recommendation 2: In the case of new construction for state buildings, amend the Code of Virginia to require the responsible state authority to consult with local building and fire officials to coordinate their construction. This coordination would focus on fire department access, the location of fire connections and fire lanes, and other important fire protection or prevention matters.

    Recommendation 3: Amend 27-98 and 27-99 of the Code of Virginia to allow the State Fire Marshal to deputize, with the concurrence of the supervising authority, qualified individuals (e.g., members of locally chartered volunteer fire companies who have received required certification as fire inspectors) to perform local inspections under the SFPC, increasing the number of inspections being completed without increasing the staff of the SFMO.

    Recommendation 4: Amend the Code of Virginia to allow the SFMO to issue permits and to levy fees for SFPC inspections and enforcement on the basis prescribed in the SFPC and USBC, with fees established by the Board of Housing and Community Development.

    Recommendation 5: Amend 27-98 and 27-99 of the Code of Virginia to broaden the scope of SFPC enforcement agreements between the SFMO and local governments to allow local fire officials to act as agents for enforcing the SFPC.

    II. Discuss equalizing the responsibilities for Statewide Fire Prevention Code inspections between state and local fire marshals to eliminate duplication and increase efficiency.

    The Task Force found little actual duplication of effort in the inspection process. Uneven levels of inspection services were more typical than a duplication of effort. The Task Force engaged in extensive discussions about the appropriate role for local governments in enforcing the SFPC, eventually concluding--as had a majority of public comment--that local mandates should not be imposed and that the services of the SFMO should be increased. The Task Force considered several possible approaches to equalizing services, including contracting with local governments already enforcing the SFPC. After considering several options, the Task Force recommended the following:

    Recommendation 6: The State Fire Marshal’s Office should broaden its inspection base, by expanding its use of modern technology, including greater use of cellular telephones and computers to increase the number of inspections performed within current resources.

    Recommendation 7: Amend 27-98 and 27-99 of the Code of Virginia to allow the State Fire Marshal to deputize, with the concurrence of the supervising authority, qualified individuals (e.g., members of locally chartered volunteer fire companies who have received required certification as fire inspectors) to perform local inspections under the SFPC, increasing the number of inspections being performed without increasing the staff of the SFMO. (See Recommendation 3.)

    Recommendation 8: The Department of Fire Programs should continue to be the lead agency for providing training in fire prevention and protection. It should also work to improve the coordination with other agencies involved in this training.

    Recommendation 9: Amend the Code of Virginia to allow the SFMO to issue permits and to levy fees for SFPC inspections and enforcement on the basis prescribed in the SFPC and USBC, with fees established by the Board of Housing and Community Development. (See Recommendation 4.)

    Recommendation 10: Amend the Code of Virginia to authorize the SFMO to contract with local governments to conduct inspections on its behalf in other jurisdictions.

    III. Evaluate the need to limit or broaden the number of facilities subject to regular inspection.

    The SFPC by itself does not mandate inspections of specific classes of occupancies by state or local enforcement agencies. However, statutory law authorizes inspections to assure compliance with the provisions of the SFPC. Local governments can establish their own inspection priorities for properties. The General Assembly sets the priorities for the SFMO by statute. The Task Force expressed its belief that the following occupancies may present a risk of casualties or property losses equal to or greater than the properties whose inspection is mandated under current statutes:

    • Hospitals and health care facilities,

    • Private schools and private institutions of higher education,

    • Large places of public assembly,

    • Hotels and motels, and

    • Factories or other places of employment

    The Task Force recommended adding several of these occupancies to those now being inspected regularly and suggested further research to determine the most appropriate approach to meeting the level of hazard that others represent.

    Recommendation 11: The SFMO should analyze and report on statistical data relating to the fire problem in Virginia and make recommendations as needed to ensure that the resources of the SFMO are used to the greatest effect.

    Recommendation 12: Because of the level of hazard they present, four types of occupancies--hospitals, large places of public assembly meeting certain risk criteria, hotels/motels meeting certain risk criteria, and residential and non-residential facilities at private education institutions--should receive regular inspections throughout the Commonwealth. This could be accomplished through the expansion of the SFMO, through contracts between the SFMO and local governments, the deputizing of qualified local enforcement personnel, or some combination of these methods.

    Recommendation 13: The SFMO should develop the capacity, on a regional basis, to enforce Part C of the SFPC (HAZMAT). However, this should not be done at the expense of current enforcement programs or those that may be established because of this study and its recommendations.

    Recommendation 14: The SFMO should take an active role in educating and encouraging local governments about the importance of assuming enforcement authority to enforce the SFPC.

    Other Issues

    As a result of the regional meetings and additional written comments, the Task Force identified several issues not addressed by the provisions of Item 93. For the information of the Governor and General Assembly, the Task Force included these in the report but did not make a recommendation.