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Fire Inspections Keep Minnesota Schools and Hotels Safe

 
Posted July 27, 2015
 
According to State Fire Marshal Division (SFMD) statistics, Minnesota schools and hotels are some of the safest in the nation.
 
That’s a nice thing to know, because people don’t worry much about fire when they walk into a hotel or a school building. It’s comforting to see sprinkler heads and smoke alarms, if you understand how well they work, but unless we see obvious dangers, we assume those buildings are “up to code” and we’re safe.
 
But the statistics didn’t always look as good as they do now.
 
The Minnesota hotel inspection program began in 1978 after some deadly hotel fires, the worst of which took 17 lives at the Stratford Hotel in Breckenridge. Shortly thereafter, an explosion and fire at the Commodore Hotel in St. Paul injured dozens of people. In 1978, ten inspector positions were added to the SFMD and state law required each hotel to be inspected once every three years.
Today there are about 1,019 hotels in Minnesota. Seven state fire inspectors and a handful of local inspectors (inspections are about 86% state and 14% local) carefully examine hotels and facilities licensed by the Department of Human Services. State inspectors also train hotel managers, local fire marshals, DHS licensors and childcare providers on fire-safety requirements — and statistics reveal that their effort is making a difference.
 
There are about 3,700 hotel fires per year in the U.S.
  • 3,700 hotel fires divided by 50 states averages 74 hotel fires per state, per year
    • Minnesota averaged 35 hotel fires from 2009 through 2013.
    • The number of hotel fires is less than half the national average.

The annual hotel-fire rate per 1,000 hotels in Minnesota is about 34.

  • The national average is 75 hotel fires per 1,000 hotels
    • Our hotel fire rate is less than half the national rate.
The Minnesota school inspection program began in 1990, following the legislature’s adoption of §299F.47.
 
There are about 1,750 public and public-charter school buildings in Minnesota, each one required by law to be inspected once every three years. (There are more schools than this in the state, but it’s not uncommon for one building to contain more than one school. About 500 private and parochial schools exist, as well, but they’re not required by §299F.47 to be inspected.)
 
Of the 1,750 buildings, five Deputy State Fire Marshals inspect about 1,450; the rest are inspected by local jurisdictions that have a written agreement with the SFMD.

There are about 4,060 school fires per year in the U.S.
  • 4,060 school fires divided by 50 states averages 81 fires per state, per year
    • Minnesota averaged 49 school fires per year from 2009 through 2013.
    • The number of school fires in Minnesota is 40 percent lower than the national average.
  • The annual school-fire rate (per 1,000 schools) in Minnesota is about 28
    • The national average is about 41 school fires per 1,000 schools
    • Minnesota’s school fire rate is 30 percent lower than the national average
Prior to the Minnesota school inspection program, and for first few years it existed, there was a major school fire at least once every two years. From 1995 through 2013, there were none.
 
That’s good news, but there is a serious note to consider with regard to school fires. The pie chart included here addresses the causes of school fires, and nearly half of them are intentionally set.
 
But that’s a topic for another day. What’s germane here is the low percentage of fires caused by anything that an inspection might reveal.
 
In our Minnesota schools and hotels, our fire inspection programs are working…and that’s one less thing for you to worry about.
 
minnesota school fire causes chart

 

BCA: Catching Criminals Red-Footed

 
Posted July 23, 2015
 
When tracking a slippery individual, every crime solver followed the footprints. They did it in Bugs Bunny cartoons, and in spooky, medieval castles, and in dark alleys on every TV crime drama. Shoeprints left behind revealed the direction of escape, and sometimes told the pursuer whether the perp was a man or a woman. Or a rabbit, for that matter. But that’s history, in the criminal justice sense. These days they can tell us a lot more than that.
 
sulfur cast of shoe print
​Photo: Sulfur cast of a shoe print.
In real life, those prints can help convict a law breaker. We’ve all heard about DNA analysis, because the science is exciting and the process has helped solve high-profile cases. But the marks left by shoes are useful trace evidence, gathered for centuries by detectives working crime scenes from the pavement up. And now they’re even more valuable because of the Shoeprint Image Capture and Retrieval database, or SICAR — a relatively new database the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) uses regularly.
 
Catherine Knutson, the BCA Lab Director, says that shoe print analysis can actually make or break a case. “This is evidence we can use to confirm identification and get evidence into court, and it can also be valuable on the front end of an investigation, when we’re still looking for facts.”
 
Shoe imprints found at a crime scene are photographed, and if they lend themselves to casting, a 3-D model is created. Photography and casts reveal different types of details — all of them important. The pictures and casts are sent to BCA labs for analysis of the patterns and lines that are unique to a certain type of shoe sole.
 
Once all the marks are identified, the pattern data is entered into a national database that contains 30,000+ shoe patterns. The computer identifies the shoe brand, model and date of production, and even provides photos of the shoe.
 
Wear-and-tear can be important to this process, too. There is no wear pattern on a brand new shoe — none of the distinctive characteristics that develop with repeated use — but as a person continues to wear a shoe, unique characteristics begin to appear.
If there are enough specific patterns, technicians can match a suspect’s shoe to the crime scene. They can also “ink” footwear known to belong to a suspect, and transparencies can be compared to crime-scene evidence.
 
Shoe print analysis has already helped solve several crimes, including a homicide, some burglaries and a retail robbery, with five positive “hits” within the last 18 months. Specialized databases such as the one in use for shoeprint analysis are growing in number, and computers will continue to help investigators identify and prosecute perpetrators.
 
With regard to the shoeprint database, a wascally wabbit may not be distinguishable from any other rabbit — but fortunately, most cases the BCA labs assist with involve human suspects, and this valuable tool can help identify and successfully prosecute them.

 

Crusaders in Hardhats Hit the Road for Pipeline Safety

 
Posted July 20, 2015
 
When you’re in Minnesota, you’re walking around on top of 65,000 miles of underground pipeline. These lines carry gas, oil and hazardous liquids from one place to another throughout the state and into neighboring states.  Safe transportation of these products is vital, and that's exactly what these pipelines do.
 
If you had X-ray vision, though, you’d see how much pipe is buried close enough to the surface to be vulnerable, and you’d immediately grasp the importance of the Minnesota Office of Pipeline Safety (MNOPS) inspection program. Part of our successful record in Minnesota is the result of pipeline inspectors who not only inspect for safety, but teach it, too.
 
oil pipeline in ground with safety inspector in background
Photo: Minnesota has 65,000 miles of underground pipeline.
MNOPS has a mission statement about protecting lives, property and the environment, often boiled down to this: “We keep it in the pipe.”  That’s their calling, because haz-mats that leave the pipe present a hazard to humans, animals, air, water and infrastructure. MNOPS engineers specialize in safe pipeline construction, and their inspectors are charged with making sure proper standards are applied to construction, repairs and excavation. They’re communicators and teachers who carry the “Dig Safely” message across the state all spring and summer.
 
Beginning in about March, MNOPS organizes “safe-digging” meetings and invites excavators to attend their damage-prevention presentation. (An excavator might be a construction worker on a crew that’s tearing up your street, or a farmer tiling a field. It might be professional landscaping service or a fence company. A homeowner can be an excavator if they’re planting a tree, building a deck or working on any project that involves digging holes.)
 
Inspectors keep the sessions interesting with a combination of real-life stories, photos and statistics, and taking the message seriously rather than themselves. Questions are welcome and discussions range all over the topic of excavating safely.
 
This year inspectors held 56 meetings and spoke with 5,628 excavators about safe digging. At the end of summer, inspectors will analyze damage reports and use certain incidents as examples for the next round of damage prevention meetings. They’re very serious about helping excavators avoid repeating their own mistakes (or those of others) and teaching them how to comply with the law.
 
MNOPS has a significant amount of authority to inspect and fine pipeline companies and excavators, but their approach based on cooperation and mutual respect is working very well. As the miles of pipeline continue to grow, excavation-related damages have dropped by more than 70 percent in Minnesota since 1994, so we’re proud of our crusaders in hardhats.
 
Dig safely!

 

A Commissioner's Call to Action for Minnesota Drivers

 
Posted July 15, 2015

Personal responsibility. Awareness. Commitment.

These are the things Commissioner Mona Dohman was talking about at today’s Department of Public Safety news conference. She was there to address the issue of traffic crashes and a disturbing trend that’s showing up this year in the DPS Office of Traffic Safety statistics.

She acknowledged the relatively good news reflected in 2014 data — specifically, a drop in the number of Minnesota traffic fatalities to 361 for the entire year. The last time fewer people than that died on our roads in one year, it was 1944, when 356 traffic deaths were recorded. The 2014 number was an improvement of 7 percent over 2013, and a continuation of a downward trend in the number of Minnesota traffic fatalities since 1968. But then, 2015 started.

“As of today,” Dohman said, “preliminary numbers show 198 fatalities, compared with 164 reported at this time one year ago. These new numbers include a 73-year-old woman from Red Wing…a motorcyclist killed in Pipestone County…a husband and wife, married 42 years, from Marshall…and brothers near Fergus Falls, just 18 and 14 years old, on their way to a basketball tournament. Every one of them was alive and loved…until it all ended, suddenly and senselessly, because of a crash.”
Commissioner Dohman.jpg
Photo: DPS Commissioner Mona Dohman asked Minnesotans Tuesday to help make our roads safer. ​
 

Dohman went on to discuss the issue of complacency, which can be a huge factor in driver behavior.

We drive unbelted, or distracted, or less-than-sober and nothing happens. We speed or we tailgate without tragic consequences…and after a while, complacency becomes the norm. We’ve got this. No sweat.

But then, one day, in one instant, the pattern can change. These traffic statistics are showing us the results of those tragic surprises.
Experienced responders say they hear, “I can’t believe this!” from victims on almost every emergency scene. And there is good reason for that.

Of course they can’t believe it. Things like this aren’t supposed to happen! No one is supposed to run a stoplight. The person in the next lane isn’t supposed to swerve unexpectedly. You’re not supposed to look up from the CD player and find yourself four feet from the back of a pick-up truck with no room to stop. It never happened before.

But it needs to happen only once to end a life — and that’s the point the commissioner was making today.

It takes a sense of personal responsibility about driving, an awareness of the risks, and a commitment to safety on the part of every driver to turn these numbers around and continue that downward trend. It takes a serious attitude about operating a vehicle, and it may require passengers who are willing to speak up when alcohol, distraction or speed become a threat to their lives and others’. It takes smart choices, like seat belts and car seats, and putting the cell phone out of reach.

Your Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety, your State Troopers, other law enforcement officers, the justice system and others are working hard to save lives on Minnesota roads. Today, Commissioner Dohman asked you to join the cause.

Driver and Vehicles Services — It’s Not Your Parents’ DMV

 
Posted July 13, 2015
 
Several years ago, people who had been long accustomed to driving somewhere to find parking, sign forms, write checks, wait patiently, and have new license tabs handed to them in person were pleasantly surprised to find they could go online, order new tags, pay with plastic, and get tags in the mail three days later.
 
Steering wheel in car
​Photo: The DPS Driver and Vehicle Services Division offers a
variety of online services to include scheduling a road test.
Soon after that, they became accustomed to finding detailed instructions online for everything from renewing a driver’s license to titling a vehicle. Then came maps of office locations and online test scheduling. The public face of the DPS Driver and Vehicle Services Division had begun to change — and years later, it’s still improving.
 
One click from the DVS landing page takes you to “Online Self Services.”
 
Scheduling a road test online is kind of old news, and checking your license status (handy, if you’ve been revoked or suspended and you’re waiting for reinstatement) is used a lot, too. Online tab renewal and reporting vehicle sales online exploded in popularity the minute they appeared.
 
But have you ever used the DVS site to find a dealership?  You can type in the dealership name, or just the brand name of the car you want and pull up a list of licensed dealers in Minnesota with that word in the title. You’ll find location and contact info that could save you some driving around before you start shopping in person.
 
Here’s another handy feature. Smart shoppers might want the base value of a vehicle…one specific car, or a general make, model and year…and DVS can provide it.
 
Let’s say you finally get this car bought and apply for a title, but it’s not forthcoming as fast as you think it should be. Try the Driver’s License or Title page. You’ll need a plate number or a VIN, and you’ll get the title status with an “as of” date, a plate number confirmation, and the date the title was processed. There are instructions on what to do if you haven’t received your title within two weeks of the processing date — complete with phone and email contacts.
 
And the next time you do your taxes, if you don’t have that licensing receipt anymore, go to their Tax Paid page. Type in your license number or a plate number, and there it is — your deductible vehicle-tax amount.
 
All the DVS forms are online these days, too. That sounds spectacularly unexciting — but consider this. You could develop a medical condition, have a crash or other legal entanglement, or need to report to DVS that your identity has been stolen. The court or some other authority tells you to fill out such-and-such a form and turn it in to some office, somewhere. You have no idea what this form looks like, how long it will take to fill it out, or what resources you might need to complete it.
 
Well, confidence is a click away. Hit the Forms/Documents/Manuals tab on the orange menu stripe at DVS. The forms are listed alphabetically under broad categories. Find yours, check it over and figure out exactly what you’re doing, without waiting in line for one second.
 
If you haven’t looked at the DVS site for a while, it’s worth a visit. The DVS goal is to make their service fast, accurate, secure and timely — and their website is a major part of that effort.

 

This Summer, Plan an Escape for Your Family

 
Posted July 9, 2015
 
They say there are two seasons in Minnesota — winter and road construction. But the State Fire Marshal Division wants to amend that to “winter, road construction and fire escape planning.”
 
It’s much easier to get the kids to grab their slippers and run outside when it’s not 12 below zero. And it’s more fun to pretend, on a balmy summer evening, that everyone is sleeping when the smoke detectors go off, and practice the escape plan your family has already put together.
 
You do have an escape plan — right?
 
smoke alarm
​Photo: Parents can teach their children about smoke detectors.
You do know that children get lost in the smoke and panic that ensue in a home fire…especially at night. Any firefighter will tell you that kids tend to hide instead of leaving the house. If they haven’t practiced getting out, they don’t know what else to do. They’re too often found under beds or in closets, overcome by smoke inhalation. In other cases, they leave the house and go back inside to get a pet, or shoes or a favorite toy, and never come out again. If no one has explained the rules, they don’t know how to be safe.
 
But if they sit around the table while their parents draw a picture of the house, show them where they sleep, explain what the smoke detectors are for, and talk about what to do if alarms go off, children will listen and learn. If they practice escaping, they fare even better. And the planning-and-practice process is a family activity that could save lives.
 
You can start here, on the National Safety Council website, with their clear and simple list of planning tips. The Safety Council includes a grid you can print. It lets you draw a map of your home’s floor plan and look for exits from any spot in the house.
 
The State Fire Marshal Division provides escape planning tips in Hmong, Somali and Spanish, and a printable grid, too. (One of the grids will better fit the shape of your house.)
 
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) site is another great resource. They get down to the nitty-gritty, with topics like helping older adults, dealing with security bars on your windows, escaping apartment building fires, and other factors their decades of study and experience have brought to light.
 
All this said about summer escape planning, the fact is that most home fires take place in the winter. Nationally, fires peak in January, but Minnesota’s residential fire deaths tend to occur in October, November and December, when we’re decorating with candles, cooking and baking, and heating our homes. Practicing in summer, when everyone is willing, will make safe reactions automatic in winter, when nobody wants to go outside.
 
And one more thing: There’s a tendency to think it won’t happen. Firefighters hear, “I can’t believe this happened!” more often than they can remember. But it does happen; it happened 4,820 times in Minnesota last year. And if you have an escape plan and a meeting place, chances are better all you’ll lose is “stuff.”
 
So make this the summer of your family escape. Practice makes perfect — and in this case, it makes perfect sense.

 

If Clara Barton Could See Us Now

Posted July 6, 2015

Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross more than 130 years ago. She was a smart, strong, history-making American woman — a teacher when most teachers were men, and a federal patent clerk when they were men, too. As a nurse during the Civil War, she became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”
 
Red Cross workers carrying box of supplies
​Photo: The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human
suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of
volunteers and the generosity of donors.
(photo credit American Red Cross) 
Barton went to Switzerland to get some rest after the Civil War, but she wasn’t the type to rest much. There she discovered the global Red Cross Network and worked with them during the Franco-Prussian War. Then she came home to start the American Red Cross and fight for six years to get the Red Cross Treaty (aka the Geneva Convention, an international agreement to protect the sick and wounded during wartime without respect to nationality) ratified in the U.S.
 
By 1881, Barton was raising funds for disaster relief in the U.S., assisting victims of fire, floods and famine across the country. She raised money through donations, and she attracted volunteers to do the work. And this was in the days when communication took place on paper that was put in an envelope and placed on a train, or by telegraph, or occasionally by telephone — one that weighed about 10 pounds and worked most of the time.
 
Communication has changed since then, and so has the Red Cross. The mission is largely the same, their beautifully simple statement reading: The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.
 
But the way they accomplish these things includes — in addition to the warmth and comfort of human interaction in a crisis — the latest technology. It’s tech that will help you survive a disaster and let your loved ones know you’ve survived.
 
In a fire, flood, or any imaginable disaster, preparedness is your best ally. And one of the many things the ARC does well is help people prepare to survive.  Watching the Red Cross Ready online module is actually fun — with the added benefit that it could save your life someday — and readiness brings peace of mind.
 
The ARC knows contacting your loved ones will bring them peace of mind, too.  So they created ways to help people reconnect. Their mobile apps feature an “I’m Safe” button that posts a message to the user’s social media accounts. It’s smart and handy — and it’s an act of kindness toward people who might be worried about you.
 
Other ARC apps include safety instructions and interactive features related to floods, tornadoes, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, first aid for humans and pets, and more.
 
The Red Cross “Safe and Well” website is a secure option that allows you to list your status where friends and family can look for you. Institutions use it to list large numbers of people. Individually, you can write personal messages and update them, and people searching for you need only a name, and an address or phone number to read your status.
 
If you’ve wondered how to prepare for a disaster, look to these ARC resources. Anyone with a phone can use the mobile apps, and with Safe and Well out there, you won’t feel alone — because the Red Cross is just a tap away.
 
On June 30, Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman provided the keynote address at the Red Cross Minnesota Region’s 2015 volunteer recognition ceremony, praising the volunteers for their consistent generosity, and the organization for its long record of dependability and compassion. She also read for the crowd of 200+ volunteers and emergency managers a proclamation by Governor Dayton, declaring June 30 Red Cross Volunteer Recognition Day in Minnesota.
 
“The Red Cross is always there,” Dohman said. “They never fail us.”
 
Clara Barton would be proud.

 

Safety, Safety and S’More Safety!

 
Posted July 2, 2015
 
It’s July! Only two days until the Big Ka-boom.
 
You might have a three-day weekend because the 4th is on Saturday, so the fun window is wider than usual. And there’s a lot to look forward to — especially if the weather cooperates.
 
Leisure time! Family trips. Fun on the water. Barbeques. Campfires.
 
And here’s a surprise (not): Each of those activities has safety issues, and DPS has advice on every one. Some of it is borrowed from other agencies, but we give credit where it’s due.
 
Let’s look first at those road trips. The safety issues are straightforward:
  • Impaired driving — Don’t do it; it kills people.
  • Seatbelts — Wear them; they save lives.
  • Speed — Slow down; it’s not a race. It’s about survival.
  • Distraction — Put the phone down and drive the car.
Boating is popular on July 4, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2015 Boating Guide is a well-done must-read, even for experienced boaters — but here are the safety basics:
  • Wear a life jacket — Minnesota law requires life jackets to be there, and the statistics say you should use them. Put them on before anyone gets into the boat.
  • Prevent capsizing — Slow down on rough water and don’t overload your boat.
  • File a float plan — Leave it with someone responsible. Include your boat description, names of passengers, intended locations, and return time. Ask the person to call 911 if you don’t return on time.
  • Brief your passengers — They should know where the safety equipment is and how to use it.
  • Carry a whistle or horn — State law requires one on motorboats 16 feet or longer. Also carry a compass and chart, and a cell phone or two-way VHF marine radio.
  • Take a boating safety course this year. (There are online options!)
grill with food in backyard of home
Photo: NEVER take your grill indoors. There are carbon monoxide hazards.​
On the Fourth of July, there’s nothing finer than an outdoor barbeque in the park, on the beach or in the back yard. And maybe you’re an old hand at that. But that grill isn’t foolproof, so let’s look at the rules from the State Fire Marshal Division Fact Sheet:
  • Keep the charcoal dry. Once it’s been wet, it dries and becomes more sensitive to heat.
  • NEVER take your grill indoors. There are carbon monoxide hazards, fire hazards and others.
  • Keep the grill off the wooden deck, away from the house, and avoid overhanging trees and shrubs.
  • Store the propane cylinder at least 20 feet from your windows and doors.
  • Check local ordinances about the legality of using your grill on your balcony.
 
Love a nice evening campfire? The State Fire Marshal has advice on that, too. It’s all in this news conference they held this spring, featuring a woman who was severely burned in 2009 when someone poured gasoline on a backyard fire.
And finally, there’s the issue of s’mores. This one is purely for fun. If you love s’mores and don’t love the marshmallow mess, check this out. S’more cones can be heated over a campfire, on a grill or in the oven. Handle with tongs, remember melted ingredients can burn you if they drip, and have a great time.
 
Happy Independence Day from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety!