The Lessons of Charleston

What will fire departments learn from the June 18, 2007, incident that took the lives of nine Charleston, S.C., firefighters?

There are lessons for firefighters and fire departments in the city of Charleston, S.C.’s comprehensive Phase II report on nine Charleston Fire Department firefighters’ deaths on June 18, 2007, in the Sofa Super Store fire— the worst single loss of life for the fire service since 9/11. The cultural lessons may be most important and also hardest to embrace.

“The biggest thing that I got out of the report was, we’re not coming up with new ways to kill firefighters. We’re still killing them the same old ways we always did,” said Frank J. Baker, CSP, CFPS, ALCM, who chairs the ASSE Fire Protection Branch. “And that’s been the biggest challenge, trying to get people in the fire service to give up some of the old, traditional ideas: ‘We can stop any fire.We can do anything.’ In this particular case, the strategies they employed would work well in a little, shotgun-style house but are not appropriate for a commercial-type building.

“In the fire service, it’s very, very difficult to give up tradition,” added Baker, who is field services manager for Employers Security Insurance Co. in Indianapolis. “That department had been in place for so many years, doing things the same way for so long, and nobody ever thought, ‘Hey, maybe it’s time we jump into the 21st Century here and look at some of the things.’ I mean, using small-diameter supply lines. Not catching a hydrant when you can see from a mile away that you’ve got smoke showing. Not bringing in a water supply. Not working with the water department to determine whether or not you can produce enough water for a given scenario.”

Issued May 15, 2008, the Phase II report frankly presents the management failures, absence of effective on-scene incident command, improper attack, and inadequate equipment used by the department that evening. The suppression operations “did not comply with federal occupational health and safety regulations, with NFPA consensus standards, or with modern fire service expectations,” it states. “These deviations from standard operational and safety practices exposed firefighters to excessive risks and failed to remove the nine deceased firefighters from a critically dangerous situation.”

The city has made significant changes, as the report suggests and Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. detailed in a June 5, 2008, speech. These changes include:

• A new training officer hired and a new training agenda implemented for the city’s firefighters

• New SCBAs bought for every firefighter, along with new protective gear and work uniforms

• New 5-inch supply hoses in place of 2 1/2-inch supply hoses

• New fire inspectors hired

• All city building inspectors being cross-trained in fire code enforcement

• New firefighter hiring and promotion policies implemented, and new committees created to give firefighters direct input in policy development

• New health and safety and respiratory protection programs installed at the department,with a new chief officer position solely responsible for them

• Fire company staffing being increased to meet national standards

• Building inspection software being developed to help in detecting illegal/unpermitted additions to buildings

• Counseling program set up for fire department members and families affected by the loss of nine colleagues

• Site of the fire acquired by the city, which intends to place a memorial there to honor the fallen firefighters

• A national search under way to replace the department’s retired fire chief

• An effective mutual aid system under development where none existed before the fire

• Area emergency departments plan to consolidate communication centers with Charleston County EMS

What Went Wrong
The long list of changes illustrates what went wrong in Charleston, both during the response to the fire and for years before. The city had not inspected the Super Store for code enforcement purposes since 1998, and in 2001 the city had amended its code to remove a mandate for annual fire inspections in mercantile occupancies, according to the report. A wooden loading dock and two workshops were added on the property without building permits being issued or requested. These additions both compromised the fire separations that had allowed the permitted structures to be built without automatic sprinklers and also eliminated at least one of the main building’s original exits. After the fire, several exits were found to be blocked or padlocked.

Had the building been equipped with sprinklers or effective fire walls been provided, the fire probably would not have spread beyond the loading dock. The likely cause of the fire was smoking materials that ignited discarded furniture and materials stored outside the loading dock, according to the report.

The department’s aggressive approach to firefighting entailed interior attack with small hose lines, which was wholly inadequate to suppress the very high fire load of the Super Store’s contents inside a large structure of connected buildings, including furniture-packed showrooms with narrow aisles between the displays. Firefighters who entered quickly began to run out of air, but their radio calls for help were not heard, the report says. The department continued to apply offensive tactics after the point where risk management guidelines called for a defensive strategy, it states.

J. Gordon Routley, a fire protection engineer and retired Shreveport, La., fire chief who heads the six-member Post Incident Assessment and Review Team that prepared the Phase I and Phase II reports, said the two reports have been widely reviewed within the fire service. He is personally presenting on the team’s findings at industry meetings this summer in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Baltimore (a keynote speech July 24 at Firehouse Expo XXV), and Denver (where on Aug. 16 at FRI 2008, all six members will be together to discuss the investigation and issues arising from the fire).

The Phase II report has value for the fire service at large, Routley said. “The report really pointed out some serious issues; most other fire departments have already dealt with most of the issues,” he said. “People are using it as a checklist and identifying their weak points. We wrote it for Charleston, but I think it’s got pretty good applicability.

“There were so many issues in Charleston,” he added. “I don’t think we’ll find many others with such a long list, but everybody can see something they might need to check.”

Baker said the city has spent $3.6 million on staffing, equipment, and training since the fire. “Basically, this is catch-up money. It should have been spent before,” he said. The city has spent about $7.4 million overall, including $1.2 million to purchase the Super Store property, Baker said.

There will be a Phase III where the team works with the city on a strategic implementation plan. The start of this phase awaits the new fire chief ’s arrival and is expected to last through the end of 2008 at least. Full implementation of the recommendations, as Mayor Riley has promised, will take three to five years, Routley said.

Risk Assessment for Structural Fires
“The 10 Rules of Engagement for Structural Fire Fighting and the Acceptability of Risk” were prepared by the ICHIEFS Health and Safety Committee in August 2001 and remain the standard for assessing risk and applying safety procedures during structural fires and rescues such as the Super Store incident.

The incident commander is the critical person who evaluates the risk level of every situation; the “10 Rules” document says the commander must conduct an initial risk analysis to consider the risk to firefighters in order to decide which strategy and tactics to use.

The document includes this text of the rules:

Acceptability of Risk
1. No building or property is worth the life of a fire fighter.

2. All interior fire fighting involves an inherent risk.

3. Some risk is acceptable, in a measured and controlled manner.

4. No level of risk is acceptable where there is no potential to save lives or savable property.

5. Fire fighters should not be committed to interior offensive fire fighting operations in abandoned or derelict buildings.

Risk Assessment
1. All feasible measures shall be taken to limit or avoid risks through risk assessment by a qualified officer.

2. It is the responsibility of the Incident Commander to evaluate the level of risk in every situation.

3. Risk assessment is a continuous process for the entire duration of each incident.

4. If conditions change, and risk increases, change strategy and tactics.

5. No building or property is worth the life of a fire fighter.

This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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