October 2012  


Every day, more than 4 million people in Harris County go to work, school or take part in social events.  While most residents may have a plan to escape an emergency in their home, the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office (HCFMO) wants to remind you to have an escape plan anywhere you go.  In an emergency, you may only have a few minutes to get out.

Fire Prevention Week is October 7-13, and this year’s National Fire Protection Association theme is to Have 2 Ways Out.”  The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office is preparing for this year’s event by reminding residents to “Know Your Way Out.”  Whenever you go into a building, take the time to look around and find the nearest exit. 

The Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office is a specialized law-enforcement agency whose mission is to safeguard life, property and the environment for the residents of Harris County through fire inspection, fire/arson investigation and emergency response services.

The HCFMO Director/Fire Marshal is appointed by Commissioners Court.  His employees, with the exception of administrative support staff, are certified as fire protection personnel by the Texas Commission on Fire Protection.  Where required by law, HCFMO employees are certified as peace officers by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officers Standards and Education. 

Since 1974, the HCFMO has worked behind the scenes to help make Harris County a safer place for you and your family – at home, at work, at school and at play.  Its goal is to provide the best possible public service. 

In unincorporated Harris County, the HCFMO inspects and enforces the county fire code in all new and remodeled commercial establishments, public buildings and multi-family dwellings with four or more units.  HCFMO inspects state-licensed facilities such as day care centers, foster homes, foster group homes, hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living homes and fireworks stands. 

HCFMO performs more than 9,000 fire and life safety inspections each year.  Each inspector’s vehicle is a mobile office—complete with computer, code books, cameras, scanner, and printer—to cut drive time and save fuel.  To help property owners identify and correct fire and life safety hazards on their own, HCFMO provides checklists to apartment managers, business owners, school maintenance staff and others.

One effective fire safety program is the inspection of all public schools in unincorporated areas.  These inspections help make sure your child’s schools are safe.  You can see the results of your child’s latest school inspection by visiting the HCFMO website at www.hcfmo.net.

HCFMO investigates citizen complaints in any building about fire and life safety hazards.  These hazards include locked or blocked exits, faulty emergency lighting, electrical hazards, improper storage, dangerous structural elements and improper fire protection. 

Another major HCFMO activity is to investigate fires and explosions to determine the origin and cause.  If a fire is determined to be incendiary, HCFMO arson investigators collect evidence, interview witnesses and suspects and assist with criminal prosecution.  All HCFMO arson investigators are certified as peace officers.

HCFMO provides emergency response to incidents involving hazardous materials.  The HCFMO Hazardous Materials Response is one of the busiest teams in this region, responding to more than 250 incidents involving chemical spills or fires each year. 

HCFMO also provides assistance to local fire departments with large wildfires, floods and other natural disasters.  The county’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) has been recognized by the Texas A&M Forest Service as a model for populous counties to follow.


HCFMO provides training to local first responders, government agencies and the public.  Staff members serve on advisory committees, community support groups and as instructors for local colleges and other training organizations.

There are many ways to get answers to your fire safety questions on the HCFMO website.  Click on the following links for more information:

If you have additional questions or concerns regarding fire safety, contact the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office at 281-436-8000.

Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences Expands Services to Families

Each day, there are families in Harris County confronted by a difficult situation – the sudden and untimely death of a loved one. Without preparation or warning, these families face a wide range of emotions and needs. Where do they turn? What do they do next? Who can help them?

The victim's assistance specialist (center) responds
at scenes with forensic investigators to help calm
and comfort family members and to serve as a liaison between families and investigators in obtaining
information critical to the investigation of a death.

The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences (IFS) works with families in this situation. As the medical examiner’s office serving Harris County, the Institute recognized a need in the community – to help families with some of the confusion that can be experienced as a result of an untimely death.

To address this need, the Institute recently expanded its death investigations services to include a trained, licensed social worker on staff providing guidance and support to families. In addition to helping families understand the process to obtain a completed or amended death certificate and autopsy report, guidance is provided to help families with steps needed to notify governmental agencies regarding the death.

In late 2011, the IFS established its Family Assistance Unit through a grant provided by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, funded through the Criminal Justice Division of the Office of the Governor.  

“We saw an opportunity to fill a need for families by providing a calm and reassuring voice and help at a time when they are facing a lot of emotions,” said Bethany Bless, a forensic investigator who assisted with the planning of the new unit.

In January, the Institute’s Family Assistance Unit was formed, and shortly thereafter, Amanda Haacker, a licensed master social worker, joined the team to fill the role of the victim’s assistance specialist.

The task of the victim assistance specialist within the Family Assistance Unit is to serve as the
primary contact for families in cases that fall under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner and to provide any assistance or guidance the family may require.

“My role is one of support… support to the families and support to the investigators who are first on the scene representing the Institute,” said Haacker.  “There are times when I help direct families to resources, such as counseling services or organizations that can help with burial and funeral assistance, and there are times when I just help them to better understand the process of the Institute and the next steps they should take.”

The victimís assistance specialist (right) provides
resources to families facing the untimely death of a
loved one and helps direct them to victimís service agencies and appropriate social support groups
within the community.

In addition to the work with the families, the victim’s assistance specialist is also available to respond to and assist forensic investigators at scenes.


“As forensic investigators, our role at a scene is to objectively gather evidence and information to assist the pathologists in determining a cause and manner of death,” Bless explained. “It can be challenging to get the information we need for our investigation from a family when they are distraught. The victim’s assistance specialist is able to use specialized training in social work and grief counseling to help calm and comfort the family and to serve as a liaison between the family and the investigators in obtaining the information critical to our investigation.”

The Family Assistance Unit is the first program of its kind anywhere in the United States to offer extended services to families by a licensed social worker who is trained in grief work, assists family on the scene, and provides acute grief counseling and referrals to non-profit social service organizations.

In its few short months of implementation, the IFS Family Assistance Unit has been recognized by families, doctors and clergy for the care and service it provides to families. In March 2012, the Institute and its Family Assistance Unit were presented with an Award of Recognition from the Christian Chaplain Force International, a Spanish chaplaincy, in recognition for work within and dedication to the Harris County community.

In the future, the Institute is working toward adding more social workers to the unit’s staff and developing a program to offer acute grief counseling training and workshops for its forensic investigators.

“The ultimate goal of the Family Assistance Unit is to assist the families of our community during a most difficult time,” Bless said. “We are very proud to be able to offer families assistance when they need it most and look forward to the future growth and continuation of this service.”