Insurance Commissioner is also state Fire Marshall

Published 11:04 am Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney discussed his position as state Fire Marshal with members of the Vicksburg Kiwanis Club Tuesday, closing his presentation with a demonstration by one of his department’s employees, Sita, a fire accelerant detecting Belgian Malinois.

Chaney serves two offices in state government, as insurance commissioner and state fire marshal.

While the Fire Marshal Division of his department is responsible for firefighter training and fire investigation, Chaney said, it is also involved in promoting fire prevention to help people protect their lives and property. “Prevention now is the focus,” he said.

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“Saving lives is the primary goal,” he said.

When he took office in 2007, he said, “George Dale, my predecessor, told me, ‘Mike, you’ve got to get a handle on fire deaths because that affects your fire ratings across the state.’

“We began a concentrated effort to reduce deaths,” he said. “When I started, more than 100 people died in fire deaths in 2007,” adding the number of fire related deaths has declined each year. He expected the number of fire-related deaths to be 51 or 52 by the end of the year. “That’s almost a 50 percent reduction,” Chaney said.

The biggest reason for the reduction, he said, was the push to get fire and smoke alarms in homes.

“Smoke alarms cost less than $10 and you can buy them with a permanent battery that lasts 10 years,” he said. “This can save a life. We got grants from insurance companies and the government, and purchased 50,000 fire alarms and put them in homes.”

The Fire Marshal Division also trains firefighters to help communities and homeowners reduce their insurance rates.

“Vicksburg has a Class 4 fire rating,” Chaney said. “Let me put that into perspective for you. If you are a Class 4 or 5, and you have a house worth $100,000, your normal (fire insurance) rates will be about $500 to $600 a year. If you have a Class 8, your rates would double to about $1,200 on the average. If you go to a Class 10, they would double again, and you would pay $2,400 a year for the same coverage.”

The state Fire Academy, he said, trains about 15,000 paid and volunteer firefighters a year.

“We worry if we were to lose the volunteer firefighters,” he said. “If you had to pay 13,000 volunteer firefighters, about $40,000 a year with fringes, it would cost the state of Mississippi $500 million a year or more in coverage, and that would be on the backs of the citizens.

Volunteers are important. They risk their lives to run in and save somebody they don’t know. That’s a calling beyond anything I can think of. It’s a Christian attitude you can’t describe.”

Fire insurance rebates to the cities and county contribute to fire prevention by returning money to the local communities. “We distribute a little over $15 million a year in rebate money to suppress fires,” Chaney said.

He said $4,240.03 a year is returned to Warren County for building code training and another $133,100.55 goes to the county to hire a fire coordinator to equip departments and train sheriff’s deputies as arson investigators.

He said Vicksburg received $4,009.77 for code enforcement training, and $125,998.66 goes to the fire department for equipment.

That led to Sita and her handler, deputy fire marshal Kevin Martin. Sita, Chaney said, is one of three dogs his office has.

“Another part of his job,” he said, “is to determine what causes fires in the state. The arson dogs are wonderful. We are able to solve 50 percent of the arson cases we’re called in to help.”

Martin took Sita through her paces for the members on the side parking lot at Goldie’s Trail Bar-B-Q, hiding a small drop of gasoline and getting her to seek it in a container. It didn’t take her long.


About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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