CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sadly, safety advances usually don't occur until tragedies underscore an urgent need for them. Mine disasters produce tougher inspection laws. Carbon monoxide death in a South Charleston hotel spurred the Legislature to mandate CO detectors in all overnight accommodations. So it goes.
The worst fire in Charleston's history -- which took the lives of seven small children and two adults in a home beside the Elk River on the West Side -- should bring a statewide crusade for more inspections and more working smoke detectors.
Under Charleston's new rental law, a city inspector tried to examine the house last month, but no adults were home. Arrangements began for a return visit, but it didn't happen before the horrible nighttime blaze.
If the inspection had been completed, the landlord would have been notified that two of the home's smoke detectors didn't work, and the third was placed improperly. Under both state and city law, rental units must have functional alarms in every bedroom and on every floor. It's a terrible shame that this lifesaving precaution wasn't finished before it was too late.
Smoke detectors aren't expensive. Charleston firefighters sometimes give them away free.
Charleston has about 10,000 rental units, but only about half of landlords have registered them under the 2010 law. Others slowly are being identified. The city has six inspectors who examine about 50 homes per week. At that rate, it will take four years to check all 10,000. Maybe the city should hire more inspectors.
West Virginia's fire death rate is double the national average. The U.S. Fire Administration says fires killed 12 Americans per million population in 2008 -- but the West Virginia rate was 23.7 deaths per million that year. Fatal fires occur mostly in less-expensive homes, mostly among less-educated, low-income, less-prepared families. Oldsters frequently are victims, and West Virginia has an abundance of them.
During the fiscal year that ended in mid-2011, a total of 51 West Virginians died in fires -- but the toll has surged since then. In the past nine months, 52 have died, 36 just since January.
"In all the years we've been here, we can't recall so many fire deaths in such a short amount of time," Deputy State Fire Marshal Carol Nolte was quoted.
During this time of grieving, Charleston's horrifying tragedy must impel everyone -- government leaders and homeowners alike -- to redouble efforts to install smoke alarms and test their batteries.