What Happened in Charleston – And Why?

Charleston, SC (August 18, 2007) — The tragic fire that snuffed the lives of nine of Charleston’s Bravest is the worst tragedy beset the fire service since 9/11/01. Of course the immediate need following the disaster was to mourn the loss of so many great men, and console their families.

But now — months following the incident, after reports and critiques are beginning to flow in. In a nutshell, we’re learning that the Charleston Fire Department is operating in the past.

Use of 1″ Booster Lines

One of the earliest criticisms came from firefighters around the country. Video and still images showed small, snaking red hoses leading into the building. Is it possible that Charleston made the initial attack using booster lines? The answer is yes – because it’s how they’ve always done it.

These 1″ diameter rubber hoses, known as booster lines, were commonplace on fire trucks here in the USA 20 years ago. In most cities they were nicknamed “trash lines” and were used to extinguish small nuisance fires. They have since been phased out in most departments because they proved extremely ineffective during the structural firefight and placed firefighters at risk.

Jamy Cote, a former Charleston firefighter, told the Charleston Post and Courier, “The (booster) is usually the first to be pulled off the truck,” he said. “Big fire, small fire, it’s so ingrained to pull the booster.” Such safety inadequacies convinced Cote to resign from CFD

The water flow of a booster line is often debated but experts agree that 50 gallons per minute is the normal maximum. Compare that to the flow rate of an Inch and ¾ handline, which are also carried on Charleston’s engines., which is 150 gallons per minute. Nationwide, these inch and 3/4 handlines are most often used to extinguish a room and contents fire in a single-family dwelling. Potatoes compared to the job facing Charleston firefighters.

“With the amount of fire showing upon their arrival at the sofa warehouse, Charleston firefighters should have chosen to advance more powerful 2.5 inch lines,” says Battalion Chief Ron Vista of the Charlotte (NC) Fire & Rescue. Monsters yes – but at 350 gallons per minute, deuce and a half hose have 10 times the firefighting potential of a booster line.

Charleston Response SOPS

When a fire is reported, most departments have a pre-planned response that takes into consideration the type and size of the building and its occupancy. For example, if the sofa warehouse fire had taken place in Philadelphia, 4 engines, 2 aerial trucks, a heavy rescue squad and 2 Battalion Chiefs would have responded. Count 31 firefighters on scene.

But during the real-life fire in Charleston, only 2 engines and an aerial ladder were dispatched. Upon arriving at the warehouse at 7:11pm, only 11 firefighters were assembled. Their initial focus was on extinguishing a blaze in the rear loading dock area, with a secondary effort to evacuate civilians and prevent the fire from spreading to the showroom and warehouse.

The Firefight

A narrative of the incident, prepared by Chief Billy Goldfedder reads, “As time progressed, smoke began to appear in the showroom, and shortly thereafter an exterior door was opened near where the (loading dock) fire was raging.” At that point the fire entered the showroom, feeding on a wealth of fuel – several tons of furniture.

Reports are that only one hoseline was in place to defend against the rapidly moving blaze. At the same time, dispatchers notified companies that they had received 9-1-1 calls from an employee who had become trapped in a closet area.

Firefighters rightfully turned their attention toward the rescue operation, and the firefight took a back seat to the most immediate task. At 7:20pm the trapped victim was freed after firefighters had breeched an outside wall.

Following the rescue, firefighters should have been ordered to evacuate the building. With no further life-safety issues, the firefight should have moved from inside the builidng to an exterior attack. However firefighters remained working in the showroom, many of whom became disoriented in the smoke.

News video shot from the front of the store clearly shows firefighters breaking windows in what would normally be an attempt to vent the interior of the building. However in this case, the tactic was mis-timed and firefighters unknowingly fed the blaze with the oxygen it needed to grow even larger. In Goldfedder’s timeline, at 7:25pm the interior of the structure erupted into a massive flashover consuming the buildings contents as well as the firefighters inside. With the store fully engulfed in flames, rescue was impossible and by 7:30pm the structure collapsed onto the bodies of the nine Charleston firefighters.

Early Findings

In recent days, the early findings from the dozen or so federal and local investigations that are taking place confirm that Charleston is a department that has been (and continues to be) operating in the past. Here’s the short list of findings…and they’re saying it nicely.

Establish Fire Department Safety Officer position

Apply incident command procedures on all incidents (ICS – NIMS procedures)

Rapidly implement personnel accountability system with passports and PAR

Reinforce appropriate use of personal protective clothing and SCBA.

Increase initial structure fire response to three engines and one ladder.

Utilize the third engine as the Rapid Intervention Team (RIT)

Working fire – dispatch 2nd Battalion Chief, 4th engine company and an EMS unit.

Utilize the second-arriving Battalion Chief as the incident safety officer

Communications changes including the use of the 10-code

The use of the tactical radio channel for responses.

Changes in water supply standard operating procedures with near-term transition to large diameter supply hose.

Use of 1-1/2 inch hose, or larger, for interior attack as well as vehicle fires.

Changes to standard nozzle configuration and flow for all handlines

Incredibly, the changes suggested here are not new to the fire service. In fact, they are standard procedure for even the smallest of volunteer fire departments in this country. It begs the question, “What the hell was Chief Rusty thinking?”

Some experts say that the department is so far behind current trends that only a major restructuring could possibly solve the problems in order to allow the department to operate more effectively – and safely. The panels can only make recommendations, so the ability to change, if it is to take place at all, lays solidly with the community, the good citizens of Charleston, who deserve much better fire protection.

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