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Charleston Fire Department: Up from the ashes

By Glenn Smith and Ron Menchaca
The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)

AP Photo/Stephen Morton
Firefighters from Charleston embrace in front of the rubble of the store after the fire.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — A van pulls up to Charleston Fire Department headquarters and empties a load of boxes in an open vehicle bay. They’re shoved against a staircase for the time being. It’s tough to keep up with all the deliveries these days.

In another room, crews try on new state-of-the art air packs and test various heat-seeking cameras. Upstairs, a clutter of new boots, uniforms and other gear crowds the floor and chairs in the fire chief’s office. Across town, firefighters vigorously train on larger diameter hose lines and inspect a newly arrived fire engine.

It wasn’t always this way. For years, many Charleston firefighters scoffed at the modern tools, safety-driven practices and nationally recognized methods used by other area departments.

That all changed on June 18 when the department lost nine men in the Sofa Super Store fire.

The city is now in the midst of an ambitious and unprecedented effort to transform its fire department from a hard-charging, tradition-bound force that brazenly did things its own way into a modern outfit that relies on the latest technology and places a premium on firefighters’ lives.

Confronted with some 200 recommendations from expert consultants brought in after the deaths, the fire department is attempting a top-to-bottom overhaul. If successful it will change everything from equipment and tactics to the brash culture the department has clung to for more than a century.
“I’m glad to see the changes come,” firefighter Mike Sullivan said, as he trains on the new hose lines. “It was needed, and everyone is really picking up on it.”

Buying “new toys,” as some firefighters refer to the nearly $2 million worth of equipment purchases to date, is mostly a matter of money. City leaders have readily approved the expenditures, which required the city’s first property tax increase since 1999. Changing an entrenched culture, however, might be the more challenging task, and its success will be harder to gauge.

The task would be daunting at any time. But it is particularly difficult amid the raw emotions, soul-searching and scrutiny that have followed the deadly blaze. While trying to grieve and push forward, the department has weathered criticism of its methods, calls for the chief’s resignation and accusations that commanders knowingly sent men into harm’s way.

Today, Thomas and his commanders speak excitedly about the changes taking place and pledge to make the fire department a national model for the fire service. “I’m fired up about it,” Thomas said. “I see that it works.”

Mixed reactions
Reactions among the rank-and-file are mixed. Some firefighters are still fond of the old ways, or worry that change is occurring too quickly, on too many fronts. Others say changes are long overdue and aren’t occurring fast enough. Most agree, however, that like it or not change is here, and more is on the way.

Capt. Bubba Bazemore is a 20-year veteran of the fire department. He said adjusting to so many new approaches is overwhelming at times. But Bazemore believes he owes it to the fallen to embrace the department’s new ways.

“Change is good. It’s something we should have learned a long time ago,” he said. “It’s sad it took nine people’s lives to put us in that direction.”

Gordon Routley, head of the expert panel that developed the recommendations, said the department deserves credit for meeting the challenge head-on at a time when its every move is scrutinized and dissected by a national audience clamoring for rapid change.

“I think they are making a tremendous effort and doing as much as fast as they can,” he said. “It may seem slow to people who are watching from the sidelines. But I’m impressed with how quickly some of these things are happening.”

Before June 18, few had reason to criticize the Charleston Fire Department. For centuries, its firefighters aggressively protected their city - its buildings, its history, its people. When others approached dangerous fires with caution, Charleston charged the flames. In the process, they protected property, saved lives and earned praise from a grateful public.

I think it’s got most of the guys in touch with the reality that you might not come home, and that’s a real tough thing.
— Engineer Legrand Thomas on the Sofa Super Store fire

But those time-honored methods came under scrutiny after the sofa store fire. Under a national spotlight, the department’s old ways and safety-be-damned mentality suddenly seemed out of place. Even the folksy Southern charm and quaint station houses could not hold back a rising tide of tough questions.

A chorus of critics found fault with everything the department did. The character of the old equipment lost its charm. Now, it was just dangerous. The aggressive tactics that had saved so many buildings and lives now seemed reckless.

The nine deaths could not go unanswered. While Mayor Joe Riley steadfastly defended the fire department as being top-notch, he also pledged to take a hard look at the organization to make something good come of the tragedy. Nothing would be off limits, he vowed. Everything would be reviewed, changed, updated, replaced or retired.

The results of this effort now play out at fire stations around the city. Many changes are easy to see: new air packs, uniforms, thermal-imaging cameras, boots, fitted masks, firefighting manuals - even a shiny new fire engine with the latest features.

Thousands of feet of new hose line is on the way, along with better protective gear and a couple of dozen new recruits.

Many firefighters seem excited about the city’s investments in their profession. On a recent afternoon, Capt. Jimmy Neilson strapped on a new air tank that nearly doubles his oxygen supply. He showed off its tracking device and other safety features designed to help others rescue him should he run into trouble battling a blaze.

“It’s the Cadillac of air packs,” Neilson said approvingly.

Roger Yow, head of the local union representing about half of the city’s firefighters, said the outlay for equipment is long overdue, but some see the effort as hollow window dressing. He said the city is merely showing off shiny new gadgets in an attempt to blunt the sting of an upcoming report on what went wrong at the sofa store fire.

“The guys are excited about getting new equipment — and they should be — but there are so many things still wrong with the fire department that have nothing to do with equipment,” Yow said. “The culture hasn’t changed at all.”

Safety culture
Some fire experts say it could take years to change the department’s attitudes, instill a culture of safety and reverse a tradition that encourages and rewards those who take risks.

AP Photo/Alexander Fox
Smoke billows from the warehouse on the day of the fire.

Some city firefighters struggle with the notion of pulling back and evaluating hazards while a building burns. Others question whether this cultural change can be brought about by the same leaders who spent years reinforcing the old attitudes that got them to this point. Thomas has repeatedly defended the department’s tactics at the sofa store fire and maintained that nothing could have been done differently to prevent the loss of the nine firefighters.

“How does he go about changing the culture when he doesn’t think we did anything wrong?” Capt. Jamie Greene, a 20-year veteran, said. “If none of these things would have mattered, then why are we doing them?”

Thomas and his commanders, however, insist safety is a top priority. The department has adopted a strict incident command system to manage fire scenes and keep better track of firefighters’ duties and whereabouts. There is a thick notebook full of new policies and procedures aimed at enhancing safety, including an innovative directive that bars firefighters from entering burning buildings similar to the sofa store that have potentially dangerous steel truss roofs or floors. They have set in motion a rigorous training schedule to teach and reinforce lessons in firefighter rescue, hazardous material response, large hose line use and other topics. And commanders now critique the handling of fire scenes so lessons can be shared throughout the department, fire officials say.

All the while, reminders of the June tragedy are everywhere: on stickers, posters, plaques, pins and other memorial items adorning station walls, fire trucks and the uniforms the men wear.

Engineer Legrand Thomas, stationed with Ladder 1 on Daniel Island, said the lessons of the sofa store fire can’t be escaped. “It’s something that will never leave us,” he said. “I think it’s got most of the guys in touch with the reality that you might not come home, and that’s a real tough thing. ... The most important thing is going home.”

Area fire departments also notice a change. Charleston, once seen as arrogant and standoffish, is reaching out, training with other departments, sharing information and working more calls with other agencies.

“They have changed their approach,” Mount Pleasant Fire Chief Herb Williams said. “The people I talk to, from Chief Thomas on down, they realize they are not in this by themselves, and that we do have things we can learn from each other.”

Charleston fire officials also have formed committees to address long-standing complaints that Thomas and a close circle of commanders made key decisions without input from firefighters. The new committees give firefighters more say in decisions regarding training, equipment and tactics. Thomas, who used to handle all hiring and promotions himself, now looks to employee committees to rate and recommend candidates from whom he can choose.

Thomas said the process takes some getting used to, and he concedes that he doesn’t always agree with the committees’ choices. “I saw two (job candidates) this time that I don’t know if I would have hired. It’s different. What it said is we are trying to get more people involved.”

Some firefighters remain skeptical that Thomas will truly cede any power to his underlings and abandon a good-old-boy network that has existed in the department for generations.

Decision questioned
Yow said firefighters already are grumbling that Thomas tossed aside a committee recommendation on the style of uniform the men should wear and he hasn’t agreed to a change in ladder-raising techniques that would mirror national standards. Some also question Thomas’s decision to shift the department’s longtime training officer into a frontline battalion chief position for which others are more qualified, he said.

Thomas said that involving others in the decision-making process doesn’t mean he will always agree with them or give them everything they want. His supporters say critics are just trying to stir up trouble because they want to see him gone.

“There will always be people with their own agenda willing to criticize anything,” Mark Ruppel, the fire department’s public information officer, said. “But to deny the many enhancements we have made in the months since June is to deny reality.”

Thomas and Riley urge people to be patient, saying the department is moving as quickly as it can to enact change. They want to make sure they are thorough and that firefighters are properly trained to work with whatever policy or piece of equipment they are presented with before putting them into practice at fire scenes.

Thomas said the larger hose lines are a good example.

The city long relied on supply hoses about half the diameter of those used by most fire departments around the country. Many firefighters say they lacked enough water to battle the sofa store blaze, in part, because these supply hoses were too small to do the job.

The city expects to receive the new, larger lines in the coming days, but Thomas wants to make sure his firefighters are well-versed in using the heavier, more unwieldy hoses before employing them in an actual emergency. It would be risky to do otherwise, he said.

For now, firefighters are training with hose lines borrowed from other area departments. As he awaits his turn at this training on a recent morning, Engineer Thomas just hopes for a day when all the criticism and debate ceases.

“We had a tragedy, we’re learning from it and making changes. We’re not going to forget it. But I don’t think the public should hold it over the fire department’s head forever,” he said.

“I don’t believe a true firemen in this city would have done anything differently that day. If I had been on the first truck in, someone would probably have been writing about me too. That’s what we do.”

NEW EQUIPMENT: More than $1.9 million spent on new department equipment.

NEW RULES: A thick notebook of new policies stresses safety as a top priority.

NEW ATTITUDE: Area fire departments find CFD now more willing to work with them.

Eights months after the Sofa Super Store fire and five months since a panel of experts issued recommendations, the Charleston Fire Department has:

  • Adopted a strict incident command system to manage fire scenes and keep better track of firefighters’ duties and whereabouts.
  • Formed employee committees to give firefighters more say in decisions regarding training, equipment, tactics, hiring and promotion.
  • Begun testing thermal imaging cameras that locate hidden flames to see which models best suit the department.
  • Adopted a host of new policies and procedures aimed at making safety a priority, including a novel directive that bars firefighters from battling flames in buildings similar to the sofa store that have potentially dangerous steel truss roofs and floors.
  • Adopted an intensive training schedule to school officers in the latest techniques for using large hose, performing rescues and accomplishing other tasks.
  • Hired half of the 24 new firefighters needed to increase minimum staffing on each truck to four people, a goal that is projected to be accomplished by year’s end.
  • Begun training with other fire departments in the region to increase cooperation and share practices and resources.
  • Instituted “Chief’s Night-In” program, where Chief Rusty Thomas will answer questions from the public about the fire department.

The fire department also has made, or expects to make, the following equipment purchases:

Personal protective equipment $506,000 (estimate)

Self-contained breathing apparatus $808,196

Rapid intervention team kits $3,773

Uniforms $174,112

Fire engine modifications $17,222

Additional engine modifications (for previously ordered pumper) $8,829

5-inch supply hoses $150,001

Hose fittings and hydrant valves $80,125

Highway safety vests $6,718

Lapel microphones and radio straps $7,538

Flashlights $5,023

Vehicles (purchased through lease purchase over 4 years) $164,500

Radios, lights & sirens for new vehicles $26,497

Firefighting, hazardous materials and first responders manuals $1,080

TOTAL $1,959,614

Note: Local businessman Gene Reed donated $228,000 to help pay for the
uniforms and protective clothing.

Copyright 2008 The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
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