Deadly home fires spark fight over regulations

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Deadly home fires spark fight over regulations

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A firefighter from the Urbana Fire Division and the State Fire Marshall take apart the smoldering remains of a mobile home looking for a cause to last night’s fire that sent a family of four to the hospital. Bill Lackey/Staff

Fire officials across Ohio are backing a proposal by Gov. John Kasich to abolish the industry-controlled agency that regulates manufactured homes, saying the commission does too little to protect manufactured home residents from deadly fires.

The Ohio Fire Chief’s Association last week sent a letter to Ohio lawmakers expressing support for a provision in the state budget that would do away with the Manufactured Homes Commission and fold its responsibilities into the Ohio Department of Commerce.

The letter says 30 people died in 1,208 manufactured home fires between 2012 and 2016. It says Ohioans are 4.2 times more likely to die in a manufactured home that caught fire than one- or two-family home.

In July, a 70-year-old woman died in a fire in her mobile home in Clark County. Neighbors said they tried to help her, but the fire grew too quickly.

“In Ohio, we actually leave regulation of manufactured homes to the same people who make money by building and selling them,” the letter says. “Without careful oversight of the industry, there is no guarantee that every effort is being made to ensure the safety of people who buy and live in manufactured homes.”

The Ohio Manufactured Homes Commission licenses inspectors across Ohio who oversee the installation of about 3,000 homes a year. It also regulates the state’s 1,600 mobile home parks. About 900,000 Ohioans live in manufactured homes, according to the commission.

The commission is overseen by a nine-member board appointed by the governor and Ohio General Assembly. By law, six of these people must be chosen from a list provided by the industry trade group, the Ohio Manufactured Homes Association.

“I believe wholeheartedly, whether I sit on the commission or not, it’s one of the best things that’s happened to the manufactured home community in Ohio,” said Evan Atkinson, a commissioner on the board and general manager of Clayton Homes in Frazeyburg.

Atkinson said since the commission was created, the number of complaints about mobile home installation has plummeted from hundreds to a number you can count on one hand.

“What’s proposed now is to fragment it and stick it back out into deep bureaucracy,” he said.

He said the commission currently requires inspection of every single mobile home installed in Ohio, a commitment the Department of Commerce has not made.

“I believe there’s a probably a good likeliness that homes may not be installed as well as they are currently being installed,” he said.

He also contested the fire chief’s numbers. A Manufactured Housing Institute study says mobile homes built under post-1976 federal regulations have the same fire death rate as traditional homes.

But Ohio Fire Marshal Larry Flowers said moving the inspection and licensing of mobile homes into the Department of Commerce , where his agency resides, will allow them to coordinate better on fire prevention.

“What we believe is that there just needs to be more oversight and transparency in the process when these things are inspected initially,” he said in an interview. “This will allow us to work more closely together with our partners in the department of commerce.”

Atkinson countered: “If that is a major concern, the folks within the commission would be more than willing to work with the state fire marshal as well.”

“The commission would welcome the opportunity to work with the state fire marshal and be able to get 100 percent of manufactured homes inspected and installed properly,” he said.

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