Following the loss of nine of his fellow Charleston firefighters in a 2007 blaze, Battalion Chief Bryan Kleskie volunteered to fill a newly created position that had a challenging mission: to make an inherently dangerous job safer for those on the front lines.
The veteran firefighter stepped up to become the Charleston Fire Department’s first safety officer, tasked with evaluating every aspect of the job and finding ways to reduce risk.
The job wasn’t easy amid the grief, but Kleskie’s work would help shape the transformation of the fire department called for following the deadly Sofa Super Store fire on June 18, 2007.
“It was almost therapy in itself,” he said.
For his efforts Kleskie was named the 2013 Safety Officer of the Year by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, FireRescue magazine and the Fire Department Safety Officers Association during a conference in Chicago last month.
Immediately following the fire, the Charleston Fire Department faced strong criticism regarding its firefighting tactics, equipment and operations, including its safety procedures.
Kleskie became safety officer less than two months after the fire. He was warned by safety officers from other departments to be prepared for a tough road ahead.
“I was told to be prepared to be disliked in the department. To be honest, I didn’t find that,” he said. “I couldn’t always get people what they wanted, but most people were agreeable with what I came up with. Quite a few thanked me. But there were some frustrating times.”
He studied up on fire accidents here and around the country, inspected new equipment and wrote new operating procedures with an eye toward reducing potential risks.
Deputy Fire Chief John Tippett praised Kleskie’s service in the position, which he called “challenging.”
“When Bryan took the position over, it was a blank slate because there had not been a safety officer,” he said.
Kleskie, 50, of James Island, said he didn’t know what to expect when he took the role on. “It was a little difficult,” he said. “After the fire a lot of people thought things needed to be done, and a lot of times they wanted someone to listen to. It was a lot about being a good listener.”
Tim Sendelbach served on a city-appointed commission of fire experts that recommended change after the sofa store fire, including adding a safety officer. Now FireRescue magazine’s chief editor, Sendelbach stated in the magazine that he recognizes Kleskie’s award with pride and admiration.
“In the darkest hours following the loss of nine firefighters, Chief Kleskie assumed the daunting task of making safety a top priority for the Charleston Fire Department,” he said.
The position went far beyond improving the safety tactics in fighting fires, Kleskie said. “People had it in their heads, because our nine were killed in a fire, that that was the only time you had to worry about health and safety. It starts well before that.”
Safety begins with physical examinations, physical fitness and diet, and “goes with every little snap and piece of Velcro with protective gear you wear,” Kleskie said. “It begins with the little stuff and that’s what keeps you safe from beginning to end.”
In April, Kleskie left the safety officer position, based on a rotation of positions. “He rotated out to give him opportunities to work in the field and to give someone else a chance to develop,” Tippett said.
The safety officer’s role has also changed since so many safety implementations that the department lacked before 2007 are now in place, Tippett said. “What goes on now, is staying on top of the current requirements,” he said.
For example, the safety officer now keeps tabs on air-quality monitoring based on recent data that shows the damaging effects of the atmosphere to firefighters after a fire is extinguished.
For Kleskie, who has returned to his duties as battalion chief, the work is never done.
“Whether I’m the safety officer or the battalion chief,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement and it takes time to make improvement work and work well.”
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.