The Kansas fire marshal proposed reform of state law Thursday after identifying six fatalities from fires or explosions in the past year that weren't thoroughly investigated.
Doug Jorgensen, who serves as fire marshal, said a majority of the incidents were in smaller communities with volunteer fire departments. Other cases emerged in cities with full-time fire crews or involved law enforcement agencies of all sizes, he said.
The six examples shared with a Kansas Senate committee included fires in which local authorities didn't fully review evidence or didn't investigate at all. In one instance, a death was subsequently revealed to be a homicide.
"They're sort of falling through the cracks," Jorgensen said. "We need to make sure it's getting done and we don't miss these."
Jorgensen urged the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee to amend state law to require an investigation whenever a person dies in a fire or explosion, as well as when a body is found at the scene of a blaze. Local fire chiefs also would be mandated to report the name and address of deceased persons to the fire marshal's office.
In addition, the bill would clarify fire marshal investigators had authority to carry firearms, make arrests, and conduct searches and seizures consistent with authority held by investigators at the Kansas Lottery or Kansas Department of Revenue. The bill will better reflect law enforcement certifications possessed by fire marshal agents, Jorgensen said.
"We are just better defining those police powers consistent with other agencies so that there are no future issues in court regarding the testimony of our investigators," he said.
The League of Kansas Municipalities and the Johnson County Sheriff's Department objected to a provision of Senate Bill 206 that could be interpreted to give the Kansas fire marshal authority to decide whether to take the lead in fatalities.
"Obviously, we're going to oppose that," said Eric Smith, an attorney with the municipal government association.
Jorgensen said the intent wasn't to set up a framework for unilaterally claiming investigation of deaths involving an explosion or fire.
In one example raised by Jorgensen, a fire was ruled to be accidental even though a sample of debris revealed gasoline residue. Investigators learned after a coroner's review the victim had suffered a head injury. An examination of photographs led to classification of the death as a homicide, but six months had passed without a proper inquiry.
Jorgensen's testimony to the committee included the report of a fire chief who responded to a rural Kansas house fire. The chief didn't conduct an assessment of the cause of the blaze and provided an explanation that was scientifically impossible.
An investigator for a city fire department reported, before going to the scene, the victim caused a fire by smoking in a chair, Jorgensen said. In another case, no one tested a natural gas line following a house explosion. A brief visit to that scene produced a four-paragraph report.
In another case, the state fire marshal said, investigation of a death in a camper fire proved insufficient. When the coroner's office called the local fire department to ask about the case six weeks later, no one at the department was aware of the incident.
Sen. Rob Olsen, R-Olathe, said legislation could be drafted to close a loophole by ensuring potential crime scenes were examined by a trained investigator. The fire marshal's office and critics of the bill ought to work out a compromise, Olsen said.
Parker Sen. Caryn Tyson, also a Republican member of the committee, said she was surprised adoption of a proposed bill requiring involvement by the fire marshal in all fire-related fatalities wouldn't lead to expansion of the state agency's budget.
Jorgensen said investigators deployed across Kansas would absorb extra cases into their schedules. It would have a negligible influence on overall caseloads and could be handled with existing resources, he said.
"I have grave concern about this fiscal note," Tyson said. "I don't think it's accurate at all because it says virtually no impact."