The Office of the State Fire Marshal was created on March 10, 1913 with the passage of Bill No. 372 by the 1913 Legislature. It took several years but all parties -- Republican, Democrat and Socialist -- finally passed the legislation after a lengthy struggle. This powerful new law required the investigation of all fires by either our new office or by a designated local official, except on Sundays.
The subpoena power and testimony under oath were part of our agency’s new powers. In addition, our employees now had the authority to inspect buildings and order the removal of hazardous conditions which were a huge issue in the early years of this country. In fact, Captain John Smith (1580-1631) who headed one of the earliest settlements in the New World, Jamestown, wrote, “I begin to think that it is safer for me to dwell in the wild Indian county than in this stockade, where fools accidentally discharge their muskets and others burn down their homes at night.”
Things did not improve in the new world where fire was concerned. In the early 1900’s, the fire rates in the United States were two-hundred times greater than in Canada, four-hundred times greater than in England and six-hundred time greater than in Japan. In 1908, Kansas fire losses were $2,720,581 with over $900,000 caused by arson.
The first annual report of the agency only covered nine months and reported 117 fire deaths and nearly 3.2 million dollars in property losses. At the end of 1914, after the first full year of operation, fire deaths had been reduced to 75 for that year. The daily fire losses went in 1913 from $11,612 per day to $9,346 per day.
Our first State Fire Marshal, Harrison Parkman, hit the ground running when the office opened on April 1, 1913. He immediately divided the department into five areas:
- Fire Prevention—the intent of this division was to prevent fires through a reduction in carelessness that would likely reduce the number of fires.
- Inspection—this division was short of staff, so Parkman established a good working relationship with the Labor and Hotel Departments and local fire departments to increase the number of properties inspected. He found then as we have found today — that most owners are willing to clean up problem areas once they were made aware of the hazards.
- Education — this division was to produce the Fire Prevention Bulletin to be used in all public schools, to write newspaper articles, and do on-site lectures to groups on the organization of fire prevention associations.
- Statistics — this “division” consisted of a secretary who handled, among her other duties, the collection of reports from local fire departments.
- Investigation — this team investigated fires throughout the state, logging 72 in the first full year with 16 convictions of thirty-six arson suspects.
The agency has had 26 state fire marshals appointed by their Governors and charged with the fire and life safety of Kansans.