When area fire departments are called out for a fire, it is because it is happening in real time and needs to be put out fast. That is what the Houston Fire Department, Humble Fire Department, Atascocita Volunteer Fire Department and at least 38 other Harris County area fire departments with over 200 fire stations do.
But it is not what the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office does. Its mission is to prevent fires in the first place.
On Feb. 12, two officers described their mission at the monthly Community Response Task Force meeting. Capt. Scott Schoonover provided the introduction, overview and mission objectives. Lt. Jeff Kronenberger provided the structure and how the fire marshal works to meet its objectives.
“A lot of people think the fire marshal’s office is in the fire department, a part of the fire department. In most agencies across the country, it is attached to a fire department. But with Harris County being as large as it is, there is a need for the fire marshal’s office to be separate, which really makes it unique. We handle law enforcement (of fire-related crimes) and we have fire and HAZMAT prevention all in one shop. We are not putting the fires out. We are coming to assist the fire departments in the investigations,” Schoonover said.
He described their mission as one to safeguard the lives and property of residents in Harris County through effective fire prevention, fire investigation, education and emergency response. In doing so, they work with every fire department in Harris County, especially those serving the unincorporated areas. In cases of area-wide emergencies, the fire marshal operates as a partner in the TranStar Operations Center as a key coordinator of emergency response for the various operational organizations working together to deal with the emergency, including evacuations and other non-fire-specific related emergencies.
“Harris County covers 1,700 square miles. We have 12 investigators, four lieutenants, two canine units and a handful of part-time investigators. The dogs in the canine units are trained to detect 16 different odors,” Schoonover said. He explained the two dogs were both donations from the Canines for Cops program.
At this point, Kronenberger joined in the presentation.
“We were created in 1976 by state legislation and are governed by Government Code 352 which authorizes the county fire marshal to investigate the cause, origin, and circumstances of any fire in the unincorporated areas of the county, including the right to enter and examine a structure where a fire has occurred,” Kronenberger said.
“We have an investigative team, a HAZMAT team, an adjutant’s staff and our own training division. Our core values are simple to remember - ICE: integrity, commitment and excellence,” Kronenberger said.
Schoonover and Kronenberger noted the activity level in 2020. It included 975 on-site fire investigations and 865 “follow-ups” by phone or Zoom meetings or going back to the site of the fire; and 19,836 “prevention actions” including 9,200 preventions in existing structures and 10,577 inspections of new construction, the rest being for preventive actions taken in miscellaneous situations.
Schoonover also pointed out the fire causes in 2020.
“In total, 36% were intentional, 24% due to failure of equipment or natural causes, 26% were unintentional accidents and 14% were due to undetermined causes,” he said.
Monthly C.R.T.F. informational meetings have now returned to the Atascocita Fire Department, 18425 Timber Forest Drive, Atascocita, on the second Friday of the month from 1-2 p.m. until further notice. Planned speakers for coming meetings are
- March: Chris Collier, director of response SETRAC
- April: TranStar, speaker to be announced.
- May: Mark Rafail, president/principal broker, Rafail Insurance Agency
The public is invited to attend, especially by Zoom teleconference. Details of the meetings, changes and Zoom access information are maintained on the webpage: crtf.org/calendar.