Fire Panel Cites Poor Training, Outdated Tactics in S.C. Firefighter Deaths

A long-awaited report released May 15 by a panel of fire experts appointed by the city of Charleston, S.C., concluded that “insufficient training, inadequate staffing, obsolete equipment and outdated tactics” all contributed to the deaths of nine firefighters battling a deadly blaze that engulfed a furniture store June 18, 2007.

The 272-page report prepared by the City of Charleston Post Incident Assessment and Review Team examined a wide range of issues related to the Sofa Super Store fire, but it blamed the Charleston Fire Department for not providing adequate protections for its firefighters by not complying with standards or accepted fire service practices.

In addition to failing to provide adequate direction, supervision and coordination over firefighting operations, the report also said the culture of the city's fire department “promoted aggressive offensive tactics that exposed firefighters to excessive and avoidable risk and failed to apply basic firefighter safety practices.”

Report: Fire Could Have Been Prevented

The report also went on to say that had those in charge of the Sofa Super Store building followed building codes and other regulations, the nine firefighters would not have died.

“The fire at the Sofa Super Store could have been prevented, and should have been quickly controlled, if the property had been constructed and maintained in compliance with the building and fire codes,” the report read.

At least 16 firefighters who entered the building and battled the blaze in the store's showrooms became enveloped with smoke. Conditions became critical for the responders as the fire spread towards the end part of the building. Seven firefighters managed to find their way out of the showrooms, but the nine who didn't make it out weren't able to due to the “size and layout of the building, inadequate exits, and the highly flammable nature” of the contents inside the store.

A report released in September 2007 by the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, Office of Occupational Safety and Health (S.C. OSHA) concluded the fire department had a flawed command that did not ensure the safety of all firefighters in an emergency situation. S.C. OSHA fined the fire department for four safety and health violations amounting to fines totaling $9,325. But after a settlement with Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, the city's fines were reduced to $3,160. For more on this story, read City of Charleston and S.C. OSHA Reach Settlement After Fatal Fire.

Fire Chief Retires

This report was released a day after Charleston City Fire Chief Chief Rusty Thomas announced his plans to retire after 32 years of service. At a press conference held on May 16, Thomas issued a heart-felt apology the families of the lost nine firefighters, saying that the last 11 months have been some of the worst in his life.

He also said he wished that the Sofa Super Store fire would have ended any other way than with the deaths of nine brave firefighters.

“My people, those guys were the greatest. I'll never forget them. I have to live with that for the rest of my life. Whether or not I'm the fire chief or if I retire," Thomas said.

The city already has taken steps to address the shortcomings, implementing most of the 200 equipment and training suggestions made by the same panel last year in a phase one report they released October 2007.

International Association of Fire Fighters General President Harold Schaitberger said he learned of Thomas's retirement and that he was looking forward working with Mayor Riley and the new leadership at the Charleston fire Department to ensure that “what happened last June 18 never happens again.”

He also applauded the fire review team for releasing the report. “Massive changes have been recommended in earlier reports by the fire review team, and even more changes will be apparent once we absorb the compelling facts in this new report,” Schaitberger said. “It is now our job to make sure those changes are being legitimately and effectively completed as quickly as possible.”

Earlier media reports labeled the tragedy as “the nation's single worst loss of firefighters since the 2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center.”

The report is available on the City of Charleston Web site at http://www.charlestoncity.info/dept/content.aspx?nid=1375.

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