Miss. to gather data on burn injuries

Published 10:20 pm Monday, April 20, 2009

Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney believes a new data collection law will help show what he already knows — that smoke inhalation is the biggest cause of fire deaths in the state.

“Mississippi has the highest fire death rate per capita of any state in the Union and there’s been no requirement that the cause of an injury or death be reported to the state fire marshal,” Chaney said.

Until now.

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The governor this past week signed into law House Bill 722. Beginning July 1, the new law will require hospitals, nursing homes and medical clinics to report to the state fire marshal when they treat someone for a burn injury. The state Department of Health must report to the fire marshal any death related to such an injury.

The law specifies that sunburn is not included.

A burn injury is described one which causes second- or third-degree burns to 9 percent of more of a patient’s body; or which causes injury to the upper respiratory tract or laryngeal edema, or swelling of soft tissues in the larynx, caused in inhaling superheated air; or death.

Investigative reports resulted from burn injuries are also to be reported to the fire marshal.

All the information gathered is confidential, although the fire marshal can release raw statistics.

Chaney said 69 people died in fires in Mississippi in 2008. More than 20 people have died in fires so far in 2009.

Chaney said the issue of collecting of data on fire injuries, causes and deaths has gone around in the Legislature for years. He said this session all the parties — law enforcement agencies and hospitals — got on the same page.

Chaney said the data will show whether deaths and injuries are from smoke inhalation or from burns.

“What we are finding when we are investigating is that most deaths are smoke related and we can concentrate our efforts on installing smoke alarms in manufactured homes and lower-income areas throughout the state,” Chaney said.

State Rep. John Hines, a Greenville Democrat who helped shepherd the bill through the Legislature, said the results of investigations into fires were not getting to the fire marshal’s office in a timely manner.

“Because we don’t have a burn center in Mississippi, if a child got burned because of a faulty heater and the house was burned down and that child is taken over to Augusta, Ga. … by the time the information gets to the fire marshal, the house is gone, the child is gone and probably no one can locate the child’s parents,” Hines said.

That makes it difficult, Hines said, to determine who was burned, where they were burned and how they were burned.

“This mechanism lets us start tracking what caused fires, who was injured in a fire … to decrease the time for an investigation to take place,” Hines said.

Chaney said the “fire-safe” cigarette bill signed by the governor will also help in reducing fire injuries and deaths.

Senate Bill 2249, which becomes law July 1, 2010, requires cigarettes sold in Mississippi to extinguish themselves if left unattended.

The cigarettes are made with two or three bands of less-porous paper that will stop burning if the smoker is not inhaling, according to the Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes, a national group that’s pushing states to require the safety feature.

“The idea is to stop the number of deaths from people falling asleep in a chair or in bed,” said Chaney.

He said furniture fires can quickly become lethal because two breaths of foam-rubber smoke and “you’re dead.”

The “fire-safe” cigarette bill requires that for each brand family of cigarettes listed for certification, a manufacturer shall pay a fee of $1,000 per year to the state fire marshal.

Chaney said the fee should raise about $600,000 over three years and he hopes the money will be spent to buy smoke alarms and detections.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia already have laws requiring “fire-safe” cigarettes, according to the national coalition.

In another 19 states, including Mississippi, governors have signed bills that become law sometime in 2009, 2010 or 2011. Louisiana’s law takes effect Aug. 31, and Tennessee’s takes effect Jan. 1.