City of Charleston and S.C. OSHA Reach Settlement After Fatal Fire

Dec. 6, 2007
After the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, Office of Occupational Safety and Health (S.C. OSHA) levied heavy fines against the City of Charleston Fire Department for the deadly June 18 blaze at a Sofa Super Store that killed nine firefighters, the city’s mayor announced that a settlement reached with OSHA would reduce the fines to less than half.

According to Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, the city of Charleston was initially required to pay fines totaling up to $9,325 for four violations related to the June 18 fire, which was dubbed by the Associated Press as the “nation's single worst loss of firefighters since the 2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center.” After the settlement, the city will now be paying $3,160 in fines. (For more details about the June 18 fire, read S.C. OSHA Fines Fire Department, Furniture Store Over Fatal Fire.)

OSHA originally cited the city of Charleston for not having a written policy on fighting fires in buildings with metal truss roofs, and removed the citation as a result of the agreement. The city found that OSHA did not maintain regulations for metal truss roofs, and that no other fire departments in South Carolina had written policies on the issue.

In addition, the city took issue with the “willful citation,” which claimed that the city did not having a written incident command system which it considered effective on the night of the fire. According to the city of Charleston, it had been acting on recommendations by the city-commissioned Fire Review Team to strengthen “policies, procedures and training on incident command” before the incident. The citation was reduced to “unclassified” status.

Furthermore, the city challenged OSHA’s claim that the nine firefighters who perished were not wearing protective gear or breathing apparatuses. The agency later acknowledged in the settlement that “at least three” firemen were lacking protecting gear and breathing apparatuses and that none were those who died.

IAFF: “Settlement is a Travesty”

Riley said that despite the settlement, the city would take the lessons learned from the tragic incident to heart.

“We are committed to bringing the City of Charleston Fire Department to a standard which achieves national best practices for the fire service,” he said. “As promised to OSHA, and because it's the right thing to do, the City will also offer its lessons learned to other fire companies in the state.”

Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) union, called the settlement a “travesty” and questioned how OSHA came to this agreement.

“Despite the formal, written request of the firefighters union to South Carolina OSHA, and the mayor’s promise during the October release of the fire safety consultant report to involve employees in addressing the department’s problems, not one of our members was asked to participate in this settlement process and it remains a complete mystery as to how OSHA arrived at this settlement, especially as it relates to items that they incorrectly assume are being fixed,” he said.

He also said that the changing the language used in the citations doesn’t lessen the seriousness of the incident.

“Changing a single word – from ‘willful’ to ‘unclassified’ – doesn’t change the fact that the city is guilty and was found guilty by South Carolina OSHA of acting in a manner that the department leadership knew could kill firefighters,” Schaitberger asserted.

OSHA requires the settlement to be posted for 15 days. The settlement won’t be finalized until an assigned OSHA Review Board member reviews and approves it.

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