Chiefs worry about waiting for fire investigations

Posted Oct. 18, 2011, at 5:33 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The state fire marshal says a month-old change in his office’s policy regarding fire investigations has had little effect on which fires are reviewed, though municipal fire chiefs said they are leery about the impact of the change over time.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Morris announced in September that because of budget constraints, the Fire Marshal’s Office no longer would dispatch investigators to fires outside normal business hours unless there is a loss of life, serious personal injury or suspected arson. That means fire chiefs trying to determine the cause of nonsuspicious fires — a process that is crucial for insurance reasons — will have to wait until the next regular business day.

Fire Marshal John C. Dean said the change resulted from a need to focus shrinking resources on the highest-priority cases.

“If there is a serious personal injury or a death, we will go out whatever time it is,” said Dean. “It shouldn’t be a big problem for most fire departments.”

Chief Stephen Nichols Sr. of the Kennebunk Fire Department, who next month will take over as president of the Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association, said the change in policy has been creating substantial buzz among firefighters — though the effects so far have not been obvious.

“We discussed it a little at the last chiefs’ meeting and it didn’t seem to be overconcerning for too many people,” he said. “We all know it’s tough times right now. We’d like to see the fire marshal have all the funds they need, but everyone’s fighting for the same dollar.”

Durham Fire and Rescue Chief William St. Michel, treasurer of the chiefs’ association, wasn’t so quick to dismiss the effect the change might have, especially when it comes to small-town departments.

“I have my reservations,” he said. “Until I see how it’s going to work, I think the effect can range from virtually no impact to a tremendous impact.”

Aside from ferreting out foul play and dealing with serious injuries or death, a primary function of a fire investigator is determining the cause of a fire to satisfy insurance adjusters. St. Michel said this is the area he is most concerned about, especially if it means he’ll have to keep a fire scene secure for a day or two until an investigator arrives.

“My reservations are scene security and what it’s going to do in regards to towns like mine with no local law enforcement agency,” he said. “I’ll have to figure out how to best make that work with a volunteer fire department.”

Dean said his office has 12 investigator positions — two of which are being held vacant because of budget constraints — who cover the entire state. In the past those investigators have gone to fires whenever they happened.

“We were carrying a pretty good level of overtime,” said Dean, who didn’t have specific data available about how much his office has been paying in overtime. However, he said the office’s revenue, almost all of which comes from surcharges on homeowners’ insurance policies and fees from fire safety inspections, has dropped by about $1.6 million since 2008 to about $3.3 million in 2010 and 2011. The Fire Marshal’s Office investigates approximately 500 fires a year.

“The problem is that our budget has stayed the same while our costs have gone up a little bit,” he said. “Once that line is crossed, there’s little else we can do except cut costs.”

He attributed the drop in revenue to the sour economy, which has resulted in fewer homeowners buying insurance and fewer building and renovation projects. Among the office’s biggest customers is the Department of Health and Human Services, which requires periodic inspections at numerous child care and health care facilities. Though safety inspectors also are stretched thin, Dean said overtime costs among investigators were hard to control because of the unpredictable nature of fires, which is what led to last month’s change.

“I realize that for some of you this may cause you some concern and inconvenience, but our financial situation is such that we need to take measures to control our costs,” Dean wrote in a Sept. 20 letter to fire chiefs. “Please be assured that we will continue to provide immediate response to the most critical calls for service.”

Asked whether the change in policy has had an impact on the number of requests for investigations, Dean said he doesn’t yet have enough data to determine that.

“I don’t know that we’ve seen a lot of difference,” he said. “Some of them may not call us. For some of those that do, we just tell them we can’t do the investigation until tomorrow.”

Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said Commissioner Morris was unavailable for an interview Tuesday.

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