NIST: Lack of sprinklers contributed to Charleston LODDs

Investigators from NIST released a report into the 2007 Sofa Super Store firefighter deaths, highlighting contributing factors

By Jamie Thompson
FireRescue1 Senior Editor

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The lack of automatic sprinklers to suppress the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire during its early stages directly contributed to the deaths of nine Charleston firefighters, a draft report released Thursday said.

Investigators from the National Institute of Standards and Technology also said the large open display space and large quantities of flammable furniture increased the spread of the flames.

In addition, while the venting of the front windows of the main showroom 24 minutes into the response allowed smoke to escape, it also provided more air to feed the fire and provided a path for the fire to spread, according to the report.

"First responders commonly use ventilation to improve the firefighting environment, increase the survivability of trapped occupants, and reduce property damage," the report said.

"In some cases though, ventilation may improve conditions within a structure, but may also lead to increased fire growth and spread, flashover, or back draft (deflagration).

"The effects of natural ventilation on the fire environment during firefighter operations are not well understood. NIST recommends that additional research be conducted to:

1. Improve characterization of how ventilation affects the growth and spread of fire within structures

2. Provide the fire service with guidance on when and how to use ventilation to improve the fire environment during fire service operations. 

The technical study team made 10 other recommendations for enhancing building, occupant and firefighter safety.

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 conditions that led to the rapid fire spread in the Sofa Super Store probably would have been prevented," the report said.

NIST study leader Nelson Bryner said furniture stores typically have large amounts of combustible material and represent a significant fire hazard.

"Model building codes should require both new and existing furniture stores to have automatic sprinklers, especially if those stores include large, open display areas," he said.

Its team of experts traveled to Charleston to gather data within 36 hours of the June 18 fire. Using these data and other information collected in the following months — including building design documents, video and photographic data and radio transmissions — the team developed a computer model to simulate and analyze the characteristics of the fire.

These included fire spread, smoke movement, tenability, and the operation of active and passive fire protection systems.

Among the factors identified as contributing to the fire's progress are:

1. High fuel loads — especially furniture — present throughout the building

2. The lack of sprinklers throughout the Sofa Super Store

3. The open floor plan of the facility

4. The hidden build-up of combustible smoke and gases in the area between the drop ceiling and the roof of the main showroom

5. The non-fire-activated roll-up door that was open between the loading dock and the holding area

6. The four fire-activated roll-up doors (out of seven) that activated but did not close during the fire

7. The metal walls in the warehouse and west showroom that allowed heat from the fire to ignite items next to the walls

8. The breaking of windows at the front of the store that supplied air to the fire.

New chief praised
IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger said Thursday he hoped the legacy of the fire and LODDs will be the improvement of firefighting standards and of building and fire safety codes.

"We truly hope that our brothers with the Charleston Fire Department did not die in vain," he said, going on to praise Charleston Fire Chief Tom Carr and Mayor Joe Riley for the changes that have been implemented since the fire.

"Sadly, it took a tragedy to call attention to the Charleston Fire Department's woeful leadership and outdated training and tactics," Schaitberger said. "But we are confident that under Chief Carr the fire fighters of the Charleston Fire Department and the residents of Charleston are now safer than ever."

A NIOSH report released last year into the firefighter deaths described an "uncoordinated response," outlining a host of failures in the way the department tackled the incident.

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