Routley urges firefighters to learn lessons from Charleston tragedy at FRI

By Jamie Thompson
FireRescue1 Editor

Photo Jamie Thompson
Gordon Routley addresses the session at FRI on Saturday.
Firefighters should learn from the Sofa Super Store fire to honor the lives of the Charleston nine, says the man who led the report into the tragedy.

Gordon Routley told a session at Fire-Rescue International on Saturday it is "critically important" that firefighters apply the recommendations his team drew up to their own departments where needed.

"If there's anything we can do to honor these nine firefighters, it's to teach our firefighters and ourselves not to let the same thing happen to us," he said.

Among the key findings about the Charleston Fire Department from the report published in May were:

  • Firefighting operations at the Sofa Super Store did not comply with federal regulations, recommended safety standards, or accepted fire service practices.
  • The Charleston Fire Department failed to provide adequate direction, supervision and coordination. 
  • The documented duties and responsibilities of an incident commander were not performed and risk management guidelines were not adequately applied.

The document went on to identify a string of poor practices within the department, including inadequate training, outdated tactics and aging equipment.

Routley told audience members during the session that many firefighters' reactions to the findings are disbelief at the way Charleston was run.

But he said it's important for people to look at individual elements of the recommendations and see if there is anything they can learn, too.

"You should ask if there are things going on in the Charleston incident that can happen to our department when we go back home, little parts of it," he said.

Routley outlined his task force's three-phase mission during the session:

  • Initial review of the Charleston Fire Department
  • Detailed analysis of the Super Sofa Store incident 
  • Development of a five to 10-year strategic plan

The final one, he said, is currently on hold while the city looks for a new fire chief following the resignation of Chief Rusty Thomas a day before the findings of the report were released.

He went on to explain how he believed Charleston had been able to achieve an ISO Class 1 rating despite its outdated methods and practices.

"At some point in the early 1990s, they decided that what they really wanted was an ISO 1," Routley said.

"I think that they looked at the ISO books and I know they talked to the ISO person for that area. I think the mission of the department was to score as many points as they could on the ISO rating schedule."

As well as the catalogue of flaws his team identified within the department, code compliance issues at the site of the fire were also discovered.

They included:

  • Additions constructed without permits 
  • No automatic sprinklers
  • Trash and debris outside the landing dock where the fire started
  • Inadequate number of exits

Task force member Michael Chiaramonte, chief fire inspector (retired) of the Lynbrook, N.Y., Fire Department, said these issues need as much attention as the strategy and tactics findings.

"If we have an example of any building anywhere that shows fire prevention can directly save firefighter lives, then this one does," he told the session.

Chiaramonte urged chiefs to push for more money for comprehensive fire prevention efforts, adding that it is "more than giving out coloring books in classrooms."

Read the Phase II Firefighter Fatality Investigative Report (pdf)

Charleston Anniversary Memorial Coverage

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