State forms task force to curb fire death rate

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - State officials have created a task
force to address Tennessee's fire death rate, which ranks second
highest in the nation with an average of 133 a year.
State Fire Marshal Paula Flowers, who got the title with her
role as commissioner of the Department of Commerce and Insurance,
called the per capita ranking "shameful."
She said the 22-member Fire Mortality Prevention Task Force is
exploring several questions, including: Should old homes be
required to get electrical inspections? Which neighborhoods and
communities need smoke detectors the most? How do you encourage
home builders to keep an eye on fire safety in the 64 counties with
no building codes?
Task force members have met three times and Gov. Phil Bredesen
pledged Monday to give the problem his attention in a speech to
fire chiefs. In October, the state plans TV and radio ads on fire
safety and will distribute smoke detectors.
"I've seen half a dozen fire deaths, and that's six too many,"
said Sparta Fire Chief Ed Kay, outgoing president of the Tennessee
Fire Chiefs Association and a task force member.
Kay blames lack of education. In two cases, he found elderly
victims on their living-room couches who had fallen asleep with lit
cigarettes. Neither had functional smoke detectors in their home.
A study by the National Fire Protection Association found nine
Southern states and Alaska with the highest death rates.
Tennessee's rate was second only to Mississippi. In 2001, 122
Tennesseans died in fires, while 160 died in 1999.
The study concluded that states with high rates of poverty,
smokers, people in rural areas and adults without high school
diplomas tended to have higher fire death rates.
States with more households that use space heaters, baseboard
heat and other noncentral heating devices also were high on the
"National statistics blame the South for cultural implications
we smoke too much and are too ignorant," said Meredith Sullivan,
who is coordinating the task force."The task force wants to find
the root of the problem."
Members have mapped fire deaths over the last five years in
Memphis and will do so in Nashville and other cities over the
coming weeks.
Pockets of fire deaths showed up in areas of Memphis with a lot
of apartments and older homes, Sullivan said.
The study also showed that people under age 5 and over 65 were
more likely to die in fires, said Paula Wade, spokeswoman for the
Department of Commerce and Insurance.
"Blacks are twice as likely to die in a fire as a white
person," Wade said. "We don't know if that's a factor of poverty
or what. We have no idea what that means. It's a phenomenon we'll
try to figure out."
The state opened its $27 million Tennessee Fire Service and
Codes Enforcement Academy near Shelbyville last October, after
about a year of delays due to a state budget shortfall.
Officials say the academy will improve fire service delivery and
better equip code officials to ensure homes are soundly constructed
and fire safe.
The academy was built mainly to serve the smaller cities and
towns that rely on volunteers. About 70 percent of Tennessee's
23,000 firefighters are volunteers who are not required to have any
formal training or certification. Most larger cities, such as
Nashville and Memphis, have their own training academies.
On The Net:
Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance,
Tennessee Fire Service and Codes Enforcement Academy,