Kansas fire marshal asks lawmakers for more oversight of fire-related deaths

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Originally published by Kansas Reflector on March 12, 2021:

TOPEKA — After several fire deaths that state officials say were incorrectly considered accidents, Kansas legislators are examining whether to give further law enforcement powers to the Office of the State Fire Marshal.

Doug Jorgensen, the state fire marshal, is advocating for a bill that would grant additional law enforcement powers to the fire marshal and the 10 investigators in his office, and would require an investigation into any death caused by fire.

“Over the last couple of years, our office has become aware of fires and explosions that have occurred that were not fully investigated,” he said. “Those instances cover both first class, full-time fire departments in major municipalities and go all the way down through volunteer departments. They also encompass all different sizes of law enforcement agencies across the state.

“What we found are that there’s fatalities at fires that are being ruled accidental and then later on down the road, a number of months in some cases, we find out that it was actually a homicide and the fire was used to try cover up that homicide. So we’re just looking to make sure that any fire fatality is investigated thoroughly and properly from the beginning.”

Jorgensen said there are roughly 20 to 30 fire-related deaths per year in Kansas.

Currently, the investigators have authority to make arrests, carry firearms and conduct searches and seizures while investigating any fire or explosion where arson or attempted insurance fraud are suspected. This bill would expand that to allow investigators to carry out any law enforced by the fire marshal’s office, and would be authorized to enforce any laws in the state as they encounter them.

The bill also includes other updated language around the types of protective clothing needed for firefighters.

Jorgensen said the investigative and law enforcement powers of the office aren’t explained in current Kansas law. The bill would update this and bring the office in line with similar Kansas agencies that have small investigative units, like the Department of Labor, the Kansas Lottery and Department of Revenue. The measure would not affect county fire marshals or local fire officials.

“We’re just better defining the police powers consistent with other state agencies so there’s no future issues in court with our investigators,” he said.

Ed Klumpp, a lobbyist representing the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police, the Kansas Sheriff’s Association, and the Kansas Peace Officers Association, supports the bill. Klumpp and Jorgensen also presented an amendment ensuring all fire death investigations would be joint investigations between the fire marshal’s office and local law enforcement.

The Kansas Association of Counties and the League of Kansas Municipalities presented neutral testimony on the bill. Both organizations recommended further refining the bill’s language on the law enforcement powers. The bill currently says the fire marshal and his investigators would be authorized to enforce any state laws as they encounter them in the course of their employment, but an amendment proposed by the fire marshal would limit that to “enforce all the criminal laws of the state as violations of those laws are encountered by such employees during the routine performance of their duties.”

The House Federal and State Affairs Committee held a hearing on the bill on Friday and plans to amend and vote on the bill early next week.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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