A FactFinder 12 investigation into a home gas explosion that killed a western Kansas mother and her two teen sons leads to a major inefficiency within the Kansas State Fire Marshal's Office.
FactFinder 12 Investigator Lauren Seabrook broke the news when the Fire Marshal's Office closed its investigation of the explosion and turned it over to the property owner's insurance company.
That led to the question ... who holds gas companies responsible should they be to blame for explosions? We filed a Kansas Open Records Act request for the family's gas company, Midwest Energy's, track record. It's information we thought would exist on a computer file, but found out when it comes to the state it's nowhere near that simple.
Our KORA asked for:
"Records from Midwest Energy that show any gas related incidents where people have been injured or killed in the last ten years."
The State Fire Marshal's Office denied our request.
Its response read:
"Identifying all responsive records for the last ten years would require a manual search of approximately 4,000 case files. Because of limited staff resources, this could only be accomplished by hiring an additional employee on a temporary basis."
We asked State Fire Marshal Doug Jorgensen how much of what his office has on record is on paper in boxes somewhere. "Most of what we have, the actual case file on the reports, is on paper and it's in a file cabinet or it's in a box and it's been archived in storage," said Jorgensen.
Jorgensen says to find almost any records from the last decade, his staff would have to sort through, by hand, thousands of files. Not just sheets of paper, but folders, boxes, and file cabinets filled with papers. "Some of those files can be about three feet of paper files or more, depending on the situation," said Jorgensen.
The Fire Marshal says his office does have some information on the computer, but it's separated by division. Which means, numerous databases for hazmat, prevention, inspections, investigations, and licenses. He says there is no way of cross referencing and keeping track of patterns.
So we asked him how it is possible to hold gas companies accountable if there is no record or tally of how many times these types of events happen. "We don't have the responsibility of overseeing or administrating the gas companies in the state," said Jorgensen.
He agrees the out-of-date system is a problem, and says they are looking for a new all-inclusive database to make searching for stats much easier. "We had one company that said we can do that and it'll only cost you $2 million," said Jorgenen. "I said well, our budget here at our agency is about $5 million a year. I can't spend a third of that just to buy a database."