Last year, Tennessee's fire fatalities increased a record 40 percent from the previous year. Those 143 deaths put the state second in fire deaths nationwide. Unfortunately, in many cases the causes of those fires are still unknown because fire departments across the state are delinquent in reporting the incidents.
Like the state's crime incident reporting database, the Tennessee Fire Incident Reporting System (TFIRS) enters its numbers into a national fire database for research and analysis. Departments are required to submit reports on a fire within 10 days of the incident. According to state records, however, the Memphis Fire Department has submitted no information for any fires in 2003 or 2004.
"Those reports are submitted by our CAD coordinator," said Memphis Fire Department spokesperson CJ Walker. "That person retired in November 2003, and the position has not yet been filled. We have notified [Tennessee TFIRS coordinator] Dennis Mulder of the vacancy and hope to submit those reports as soon as the position is filled." Walker said the position will be posted within the next few days.
"It has been a requirement of law for many years that local departments notify the state of their fires. Unfortunately, that law has not been heavily enforced," said Paula Wade with the state Department of Commerce and Insurance. That department includes a fire-prevention division, among other divisions. "For the first time in a lot of years, the director [Paula Flowers] has not come from the insurance industry, and she has really taken an interest in fire prevention."
Flowers is also the state's fire marshal. Last week, a letter was sent to all city and county fire chiefs requesting TFIRS compliance. "If Tennessee consistently had twice the rate of cancer deaths or child mortality or hepatitis, people would be up in arms demanding action," said the letter. "But without the [fire] data, we can only guess what approaches will make a difference."
Legislation was passed last year shielding fire departments from liability when reporting suspected causes of a fire. Before the law, departments had been hesitant to file reports, for example, in cases where the cause was thought to be arson, said Wade. "We know that arson is a tremendous problem in Tennessee, but to quantify it is difficult. Now, as long as a department lists a legitimate reason for a fire, they aren't held responsible even if it is later found to be the wrong cause."
Another obstacle to Tennessee's compliance is the large number of volunteer firefighters, who account for 75 percent of firefighters statewide. "When you have a force made up of volunteers with other full-time jobs, filing those reports doesn't tend to be on the top of people's lists," said Wade. "And honestly, our department doesn't have any enforcement powers. The worst we can do is tell people that there is a lot of good that can come with [reporting]."
What Wade's department lacks in enforcement, it is making up for in warnings and reminders. Part of Wade's letter to fire chiefs noted that a failure to comply with TFIRS could jeopardize federal funds. The funds, awarded to individual departments, are essential to rural departments, which use the money for training and equipment. As part of the federal awards, departments are required to be in TFIRS compliance for that calendar year. Fire chiefs have also been told that noncompliant departments will be listed on the state's Web site.
Unlike Memphis, the Shelby County Fire Department is in full TFIRS compliance. n