By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
OSAWATOMIE — When it comes to personal safety and responsibility, the Lawrence City Commission apparently believes citizens shouldn’t be left to make their own decisions.
Such was the case Tuesday when officials approved a ban on front porch couches in Kansas’ iconic college town, all in the name of fire safety.
City fire officials argue upholstered furniture left to sit out on a porch, deck or patio pose a significant fire hazard. Fire chief Mark Bradford told city commissioners that because upholstered furniture is often highly flammable and exterior areas usually don’t have smoke detectors, couch fires can be particularly dangerous.
The city plans to first ask residents to voluntarily remove offending furniture, but if that fails the commission has approved fines starting at $100 per day. Furniture intended for outside usage is exempt from the edict.
With such foreboding warnings and stark action on the matter, you’d think Lawrence had been swept by wave after wave of outdoor couch fires. But city statistics reveal that since 2007, only 10 of 463 structure fires involved indoor furniture placed outside a house.
That’s barely 2 percent.
But Commissioner Bob Schumm said despite the overall small percentage of couch fires, it’s a problem that can have devastating effects.
“We’re dealing with a lot of young adults, a lot of them don’t have the same kind of carefulness engrained in themselves as older adults do,” Schumm said. “To a certain extent we’re probably saving people from themselves. Is it an overreach of government? Some people may say it is.”
Schumm hung up on me when asked if he didn’t trust residents to make safe decisions for themselves.
Fire officials also cited statistics from Campus-Firewatch.com, which tracks fires at colleges and universities. From 2000-2012, the site has documented 30 such porch fires involving college students, but couches were involved in only 11 of those incidents.
Data from the National Fire Prevention Agency only amplifies the fact that officials have made a mountain out of a molehill. Nationwide, it seems you’re more likely to bring down the house while cooking up some ramen than sitting on your porch. From 2007-2011, 42 percent of all house fires began in the kitchen, while exterior blazes accounted for only 3 percent.
“I see this more as telling people what to do, and where does that stop?” commissioner Jeremy Farmer said Tuesday evening. Farmer and commissioner Mike Amyx were the two dissenting votes. “A lot of people I have talked to have said the same thing. I have gotten dozens of comments.”
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