Spurred by the surge of major fires attributed to "electrical causes" in the past few years, top US fire safety experts are sounding new alarms about electrical "hazards."
Yet these hazards are far more complex and subtle then electrical equipment alone. Investigators often find other causes for many fires that are at first inaccurately attributed to electrical problems.
What emerges from interviews with dozens of experts in and out of government is that the real causes run the gamut, from a serious shortage of electrical inspectors, to graft among government inspectors, to the proliferation of do-it-yourself electrical wiring manuals.
With a careful eye on the fact that faulty electrical wiring and equipment are sometimes the direct and only cause of fires, David A. Lucht, a professor at Worcester (Mass.) Polytechnic Institute, the only school in the United States that offers a master's degree in fire-safety engineering, says: "In our trade, it's a common axiom that most of the [so- called electrical] fires are caused by people."
As an example, he cites the common practice of running an extension cord under a rug. After constant wear from perhaps years of walking on it, the cord can heat up and the rug catches on fire.
In turn, other fire safety experts -- among them Philip S. Schaenman, associate administrator of the US Fire Safety Administration; Donald Flynn, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs; and Joseph McPartland, a recognized national expert in fire safety codes -- are hopeful that solutions to these more insidious problem areas will "catch fire":
* Acute shortage of inspectros.
The new York City Bureau of Electrical Control, which does electrical inspections, has been pared down enormously, partly because of the city's fiscal strains and partly because of a lack of understanding by politicians on how much proper inspection can contribute to increased safety from fire, bureau director Martin Burell says.
In 1970 the city had 270 inspectors; now there are fewer than 70, he says adding that this "critical shortage" has resulted in "increased safety hazards." Comments from experts around the country show that New York's shortage is the tip of the iceberg.
* Poorly qualified and dishonest inspectors.
"Many inspectors are top-notch, fully qualified electrical persons," says Jim Richards of Finksburg, Md., a highly respected electrical code consultant, who for 35 years was an electrical inspector.
"Others are poorly qualified persons, sometimes forced to make multiple-tyep inspections, including buildings, plumbing, and heating. . . . I have seen inspectors who wore sharply pressed business suits, white collar, and tie, and it made me wonder how they could keep so clean under construction conditions."
Extensive graft among inspectors has been uncovered in Chicago and New York. Mr. Burell says his "intuition says it [graft] exists, but I have no proof." William Somers, executive secretary of the International Association of Electrical Inspectors, maintains that wrongdoing among inspectors is no greater than in any other industry. The danger of it, however, is that inferior workmanship gets approved when it shouldn't.
* Lack of proper electrical codes. Only 37 out of 50 states have adopted the National Electrical Code laid down and periodically revised by the National Fire Protection Association. While most experts say the NFPA code is the best fire safety code that exists, it is subject to "increasing pressures that threaten to compromise or even corrupt the code," writes Mr. McPartland, editorial director of Electrical Construction and Maintenance magazine.
"These pressures," he continues, "invariably take the form of vested interests -- manufacturers, real-estate and business-management groups, industry associations . . . to develop and formulate code rules that promote their particular business ends." It should be noted, however, that members of the NFPA vote democratically on code changes.
* The proliferation of do-it-yourself electrical wiring manuals.
Too many people lack the aptitude to do wiring themselves, an NFPA spokesman says. While the handbooks don't intentionally mislead, they can be a cause of fire safety problems when coupled with people's inexperience, fire officials agree.
Mounting concern that do-it-yourself wiring can be a fire hazard has led some publishers to phase out electrical information. One of these is Mechanics Illustrated, owned by CBS Inc. With the exception of the most simple processes, "we steer clear of electricity," says Burt Murphy, an editor with the magazine.
It is important to note that despite the tragic, headlinemaking fires that are electrical in origin, such as the Southgate, Ky., nightclub fire in which 164 people died, "electrical fires" account for relatively few deaths compared with other causes of fire.
According to Mr. Schaenman of the US Fire Administration, recent statistics show that electrical fires cause only 5 percent of the fire deaths in the US, or the sixth leading cause of fires.
Smoking is first, while children playing with matches and cooking-related fires come before electrical.
Fire department officials in New York are quick to admit that many fires are irresponsibly called electrical when, eventually, they turn out to be arson or cooking-related, as was the case here recently in several hotel fires.
But it happens in rural areas, too. This fire report is from a farming community about a barn that had burned: "Cause of the fire unknown -- barn not wired."
Yet electrical fires account for a very high percentage of the dollar value of property damage, statistics show. According to the NFPA, between 1971 and 1979 fires of electrical origin caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to commercial and industrial property.
"The majority of these were caused by improperly u sed or installed wiring," an NFPA spokesman said.