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The Charleston Sofa Super Store Fire that happened on June 18, 2007 in Charleston, South Carolina, has come to be one of the most studied fires in the recent history of United States, and rightly so. Nine male firefighters aged 27 to 56 lost their lives, the highest number in a single event since September 11. The incident left an eternal scar on the Charleston Fire Department members and the American fire service. There were many reports from government agencies, NGOs, think tanks, and other groups. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) assisted the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the investigation (NIOSH) which was released on October 28, 2010.
About fifty investigators in all were assigned to the investigation. The NIOSH investigators traveled to the incident site and met with representatives of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), and South Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration (SC-OSHA). The fire occurred at the Sofa Super Store, which was composed of a 42,000 ft² single-story steel -trussed showroom building with a 17,000 ft² warehouse building located behind the retail space. In June, 2010, a report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives concluded that the Sofa Super Store fire probably began after someone tossed a lit cigarette near trash and discarded furniture, probably because the pile of trash was near an area where employees were known to take smoking breaks. The fire rapidly erupted and spread out of control. It was fueled by cans of solvent and burning furniture quickly generated a huge amount of toxic and highly flammable gases along with soot and products of incomplete combustion that added to the fuel load. The nine who perished ran out of air while inside the smoke-filled warehouse, according to the NIOSH report, though it also cited thermal injuries as a cause of death. At least nine other fire fighters, including two mutual-aid fire fighters, barely escaped serious injury.
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After an initial inquiry in early 2010 requested by Charleston area solicitor Scarlett Wilson to determine if criminal charges should be pursued, SLED (South Carolina Law Enforcement Division) returned a statement that the fire did not meet the criteria for a SLED criminal investigation. She requested a review saying that Charleston Fire Department commanders exposed fire crews to unnecessary and deadly risks, and with insufficient training and leadership.
Like previous federal and city reports, The NIOSH report cited poor incident command, lack of fire sprinklers, too small horses, air tanks that weren't full, unreliable radio communications, inadequate water supplies and code violations as what contributed to the dreadful outcome. The City of Charleston also sponsored an investigation into the fire, with a panel of outside experts headed by Fire Chief Gordon Routley. Moving with astonishing speed, the six person panel came out with a list of initial recommendations in less than a week. The Routley report bluntly assessed that The Charleston Fire Department was inadequately staffed, inadequately trained, insufficiently equipped, organizationally unprepared to conduct an operation of such complexity in a large commercial occupancy.
Following the incident, the personal protective equipment worn by each of the nine victims was examined in detail by a personal protective clothing expert. The evaluation indicated melting of polyester station uniforms in the areas where the turnout clothing was degraded by the fire exposure.
The city fire and police departments utilized a type-2 trunked radio system that automatically assigned radio frequencies as needed to different "talk groups". Investigation revealed that on the fateful day, at least one firefighter did not carry his radio. Some fire departments in the area operated their own dispatch centers and thus not all fire departments who were on scene could communicate directly with the city fire department due to the multiple radio systems in place. Incident Commander (IC) was never formally announced at the incident despite the Departmental Policy stating that the highest ranking officer on-scene was the Incident Commander.
During the NIOSH investigation, interviewed fire fighters reported a number of recurring maintenance problems on apparatus and power equipment at the maintenance and facility ran by the fire department in one of the stations. Engine 11 required specific procedures to engage the pump. The Supervisor of maintenance reported that if the engine was not throttled to full throttle before the pump was engaged, the pump would not discharge at full capacity. Investigators found some of the cylinders had pressures below 2000 psi, many below the required 90% level.
The structure, a one-storey commercial furniture showroom and warehouse facility totaling over 51,500 square feet was non-sprinkle red and had been renovated and expanded a number of times over the past 15 years. It was originally a 17,500 square foot grocery store with lightweight metal roof trusses. It contained limited penetrations like ventilations and utilities thus limited openings for smoke and hot gases to escape naturally in the event of fire.
The City building officials indicated that the store was not in compliance with applicable codes. Code violations included accumulation of trash outside the loading dock, large quantities of flammable liquids, solvents and thinners and storage of furniture and flammable materials in non-permitted areas.
The Charleston Panel recommended twenty initial changes to be made immediately while the NIOSH report proposed forty three recommendations to the city, most of which could be adapted by other fire departments throughout the country, to avoid such fatal fire accidents in the future. Top in the recommendations was that fire departments should develop, implement and enforce written standard operating procedures (SOPs) for an occupational safety and health program in accordance with NFPA 1500. Having clear, concise and practiced SOPs has a lot of benefits like being an outline for training and a guidance tool for fire department members thus increasing safety. The policies can foster and improve the overall safety climate of a fire department, as well as improve specific safety and health areas, such as respiratory protection, risk management, training and competency in fire-ground operations, tactics, equipment and apparatus use. (Slade, 2009)
The Charleston Panel recommended the establishment of a Deputy Chief, a Fire Department Safety Officer position, a Public Information Officer and said that there should be a minimum of two dispatchers on duty at all times. Maintaining a minimum staffing of three on -duty firefighters at all times on all existing engine and ladder companies and an incremental movement over two years to achieve four on-duty firefighters also featured in the recommendations. Reinforcement of appropriate use of personal protective clothing and SCBA, use of seat-belts, ensuring that "2-in/2-out" is always followed and applying appropriate incident command procedures on all incidents came up in both reports.
It was proposed by the NIOSH report that An Incident Management System (IMS) should be developed, implemented and enforced by fire departments at all emergency incident operations. The NIOSH investigators came upon several examples in the fire incident where recognized guidelines for IMS were not followed. Thus this would ensure that multiple chief officers would not serve in command roles in uncoordinated manner, ensure an established accountability system to track fire fighters on scene, launch a Rapid Intervention Crew, assign an ISO and ensure the fire department and police work effectively together to control traffic and protect horse-lines delivering water to the scene, unlike what happened. (NIOSH, 2009)
Incident Command and tactical operations training and certification to Firefighter II level before emergency duty, changing to large diameter supply hose and eliminating 10-codes and using designated tactical channels for major incidents were proposed in the Routley Report. Written SOPs that identify incident management training standards and requirements for members expected to serve in command roles should be developed, implemented and enforced by fire departments. Safety both on the fire-ground and during normal operations is one of the fire officer's primary responsibilities. The standards include qualifications in fire-ground safety like fire behavior, building construction, conducting pre-incident planning, supervising emergency operations and deploying assigned resources in accordance with the local emergency plan.
Pre-incident planning inspections should be conducted by fire departments on buildings within their jurisdiction. The Incident Commander should always ensure close accountability for all personnel on the fire-ground and ascertain continuous evaluation of risk versus gain when determining whether the fire suppression operation will be offensive or defensive. Adequate water supply and use of exit locators such as high intensity floodlights to guide disoriented firefighters to the exit should be considered.
Federal and state occupational safety and health administrators should consider developing additional regulations for improvement of the safety of fire fighters including adopting National Fire Protection Association consensus standards. Moreover, manufacturers, researchers and equipment designers ought to enhance verbal and radio communication by developing and refining durable and easy to use radio systems, in conjunction with properly worn SCBA. Research should also be done in refining new technology to track the movement of fire fighters inside structures.
Use of sprinkler systems and automatic ventilation systems in commercial structures, especially ones having high fuel loads and other life-safety hazards should be required by code setting organizations and municipalities. Furthermore, they should coordinate collection of building information and the sharing of information between building authorities and fire departments. Establishing one central dispatch centre to communicate activities involving units from multiple jurisdictions and ensuring issuance of mobile and portable communications equipment capable of handling the volume of radio traffic to fire departments responding to mutual aid incidents and allow communications among all responding companies within their jurisdiction.
Based on its findings, the NIST technical study team made 11 recommendations for enhancing building, occupant and firefighter safety nationwide. In particular, the team urged state and local communities to adopt and strictly adhere to current national model building and fire safety codes. If today's model codes had been in place and rigorously followed in Charleston in 2007, the study authors said, the conditions that led to the rapid fire spread in the Sofa Super Store probably would have been prevented. (Sendelbach, 2008)
The City of Charleston attracted criticism when it refused to help the International Association of Fire Fighter (IAFF) and International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) in planning the memorial, which led to exacerbated tensions between the IAFF, which alleged that Mayor Joseph Riley and Fire Chief Rusty Thomas were not labor friendly and that Charleston was an openly Anti-Union city, and the South Carolina Firefighters Association (SCFA). The IAFF and other fire safety experts have been critical of the manner in which the fire was handled.
A public memorial service for the fallen firefighters was held on June 22, 2007 at the North Charleston Coliseum in North Charleston. There was a convoy of more than 300 fire engines, command vehicles, ladder trucks, and ambulances, stretching about 7.5 miles in a single file passing each of the three stations from which firefighters were lost and past the site of the deadly fire. Bystanders, police officers and ATF agents paid their last respects by holding their hands over their hearts or saluting.
It was estimated that 30,000 people including 8,000 firefighters attended, representing over 700 emergency services agencies. The largest fund put up for the families of the deceased raised about $1.2 million, excluding an additional $100,000 donated by Leary Firefighters Foundation, another $100,000 donated by the Sofa Super Store owner and many other donations by other shops and businesses around the city. The store owner, Herb Goldstein, established the Charleston Nine Scholarship Endowment with a startup donation of $100,000 for first responders and their children. A local tattoo parlor gave a free tattoo memorializing the lost fire fighters. (Recent news, 2007)
On June 27, 2007, Mayor Joey Riley announced that the City of Charleston and the Sofa Super Store owner had reached a tentative agreement to turn the site of the tragedy into a memorial park. Today, Charleston Nine Memorial Highway runs on a 3.6 mile stretch of US Route 17 in honor of the fallen firefighters, as announced by Law makers from South Carolina on 25th March, 2008. The then President, George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, sent their condolences to the families of the deceased. (Bush, 2007)
Most of the recommendations made by the NIOSH, NIST and Charleston Panel have been implemented in Charleston and many other places around the country today. The Charleston Sofa Super Store Fire was an accident, but like many other tragedies, it could have been prevented. To many it is just a street name, or a memorial park, but to the people of Charleston, Charleston Nine is a reminder of a disaster that should never be allowed to happen again and we owe it to the Charleston Nine to never forget and to learn and share the many lessons that have been left behind for the safety and effectiveness of our members, and the tactics we deploy in our emergency stations.