Municipal fire marshals do have a place in local communities and when the position is properly defined and the official is properly trained, the benefits to the municipality are many.
Don’t misunderstand. State police and county fire marshals are definitely needed when investigations could involve criminal actions. There are also needed to determine whether the cause of a fire was by accidental, intentional or negligent actions. They are highly trained troopers and detectives who specialize in fire investigations. When the cause is found, it is quite often beneficial that these special investigators determined it – especially in court. They are used often in our region and we are fortunate to have some of the best professionals serving in that capacity.
But these highly trained professionals are not available at any municipality’s beck-and-call to investigate and cite residents who run afoul of that community’s local burn ordinance. Nor are they available to perform fire inspections of commercial and industrial sites in accordance with the local municipality’s fire prevention codes. They are rarely available to sit in on municipal meetings and offer monthly reports, answer questions or offer input on upcoming local fire code legislation.
This is where the municipal fire marshal comes in. Municipal fire marshals have served our local communities for decades. When given proper authorization, they are the ones dispatched to a report of an open fire that is, or could be, in violation of a local ordinance or parking in a fire zone. When given proper authorization, they are the ones who can cite violators on the spot.
Having a qualified, local fire marshal respond to municipal complaints is a lot less expensive than dispatching the volunteer fire company to respond with their trucks or tying up a professional police officer. There’s also the possibility of volunteers being thrust into a neighbor dispute regarding local laws they may not be familiar with.
But having a local fire marshal is a bit more complex than just naming someone to the position.
At a recent Marlborough Township supervisors' meeting, the Pennsylvania State Association of Townships was cited as reporting that municipalities pay for similar services through the county and state police. That’s not quite right. If you don’t believe it, try calling them the next time your neighbor lights up that pile of smelly rubbish in the backyard. You will find that it is the local fire company who responds – and it’s usually an expensive ride for the volunteers (and their employers if they were at work).
Marlborough Township officials are correct in wanting to ensure that the position is properly defined. The duties of the official and the qualifications required need to be in writing. Seeking out information from neighboring municipalities is a good start. Most of them have municipal fire marshals operating successfully within their borders.
The Commonwealth of Pa. Office of the Fire Commissioner, along with national organizations like the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA), offer advice, guidelines, training and certification. The Montgomery County Fire Training Academy is also a training and certification resource.
With a little help and encouragement, you will find somebody qualified or willing to be trained and certified to do the job in your own community.