OSHA: First job at scene of fire is paperwork

'Our fire department is meticulous in its safety procedures, but what OSHA is requesting could endanger our citizens, their property and our firefighters'

By Glenn Smith
The Post and Courier

CHARLESTON, S.C. — A fire engine races up to a house engulfed in flames. Smoke billows from the burning building. Someone screams for help from the second floor.

The captain of the fire crew hears the cry and then ... begins filling out paperwork.

That's the scenario area firefighters fear will result from a push by state officials to enforce new safety standards in the wake of a July 2010 blaze in North Charleston that injured three firefighters.

The state Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the North Charleston Fire Department for failing to properly monitor the whereabouts of its firefighters battling the blaze and for not having enough personnel at the ready to help in the event of an emergency. The citations carried a $2,000 fine.

The city has been fighting those citations, maintaining that OSHA overstepped its authority and is trying to enforce regulations that the state never formally adopted or notified fire departments to follow.

Of particular concern is a measure that would require the first fire captain on the scene to fill out worksheets detailing firefighter assignments and other information before helping to extinguish the blaze, said attorney Sandra Senn, who represents the city.

OSHA maintains that this would improve safety at fire scenes, giving fire officials a clear picture of who is doing what and where. Opponents argue that the measure saddles the most experienced crew member with bureaucratic chores at a time when every second counts.

North Charleston Fire Chief Greg Bulanow said the practice would put the public at risk. His boss agrees.

"Our fire department is meticulous in its safety procedures, but what OSHA is requesting could endanger our citizens, their property and our firefighters," North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said.

"If your house is on fire with family members inside, would you want the first responding fire captain to be filling out paperwork or saving your family?"

St. Johns Fire Chief Karl Ristow provided a sworn statement in support of North Charleston's position, saying the recommended worksheet solution goes against "good firefighting practice and general common sense."

Area fire officials said the move is the latest attempt by the state's OSHA agency to ratchet up safety rules without proper discussion or consideration. The agency has been on this push since a June 2007 blaze killed nine Charleston firefighters at Sofa Super Store in West Ashley, they said.

Fast-moving fire

OSHA officials would not discuss the North Charleston case or the new requirements for firefighters because the case is being contested in Administrative Law Court.

In court papers, OSHA has argued that the citations for "serious" violations should stand, because the fire department exposed its firefighters to recognized and potentially deadly hazards, such as being trapped in a burning building.

The case stems from a fast-moving blaze that tore through a two-story home on Purity Drive, in the Hollow Oaks neighborhood, on July 7, 2010.

Shortly into the fire, an explosion occurred, injuring three firefighters.

Photographs from the scene show two of the men scrambling from a second-floor window as smoke billows out.

In its September 2010 report on the fire, OSHA dinged the fire department for failing to use a proper "accountability" system to keep track of firefighters at the scene.

OSHA raised similar concerns with the Sofa Super Store fire after determining that Charleston fire officials didn't know who was in the furniture showroom when the roof collapsed.

North Charleston fire officials told OSHA they already have a detailed accountability system, which includes collecting identification tags from firefighters at fire scenes. The system stumbled at the Purity Drive blaze because of confusion when the first two engines arrived at the same time.

An engineer tasked with collecting tags apparently didn't realize it was his responsibility to do so, Deputy Fire Chief Kyle Minick stated in an affidavit.

OSHA has pushed for the use of the worksheet by first-arriving captains, referencing a wide-ranging safety standard put forth by the National Fire Protection Association.

The state hasn't adopted that standard, but OSHA officials said fire officials should have been following it anyway, because it is a recognized norm in the fire service.

The problem is that that is not the case, fire officials said. Almost no one in South Carolina uses this worksheet system, and fire service experts said few departments across the nation follow every section of the standard OSHA is citing.

'Two in, two out'

Ken Willette, the NFPA's public fire protection manager, said it is important for fire departments to have a system for monitoring assignments at fire scenes, but it is often best left for local departments to determine what works best for them. He doesn't think it makes much sense to have fire captains doing paperwork before tackling the blaze itself.

"In the community where I served, they would want the first-arriving officer engaged in controlling the incident and doing what he can to save lives and property," he said.

OSHA also cited the city for failing to adhere to the so-called "two in, two out" rule throughout the fire. That safety practice requires that at least two firefighters enter a burning building and remain in contact while at least two more remain outside, ready to help should an emergency arise.

Though one firefighter mistakenly left his assignment outside the building and entered the burning home, photographs show the department had plenty of firefighters on the outside to compensate for his absence, fire officials said.

OSHA acknowledged that the department had more people outside, but contended that those folks were not assigned to the team responsible for rescuing firefighters if an emergency arose.

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