State workplace safety officials have dropped all fines and citations against the North Charleston Fire Department in connection with a July 2010 blaze that injured three firefighters.
The state Occupational Safety and Health Administration had cited the Fire Department for failing to properly monitor the whereabouts of its firefighters battling the blaze on Purity Drive 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 fought those citations, maintaining that OSHA overstepped its authority and was trying to enforce regulations that the state never formally adopted or notified fire departments to follow.
An agreement reached this month between OSHA and the city dismissed the citations and fines. In return, the Fire Department was required to create a written policy for critiquing fire responses and getting feedback forms from firefighters on performance issues. The department also agreed to host a visit from outside fire officials to monitor its “accountability” system for tracking firefighters at fire scenes,
Attorney Sandra Senn, who represented the city in the case, said North Charleston already had a critiquing policy that just had to be put in writing. And state fire officials already have conducted multiple visits to review the accountability system, she said.
“North Charleston Fire Department is a very well-run organization and in dropping the citations OSHA has ultimately done the right thing,” Senn said. “Sometimes firefighters get injured through no fault or flaw of the employer. It’s a dangerous job and it takes a special person to do it.”
OSHA spokeswoman Lesia Kudelka said the agreement shows OSHA’s commitment to worker safety because the process prompted the Fire Department to make changes that will better protect firefighters.
The case had drawn wide interest from area fire departments due to the remedies OSHA initially was proposing. Of particular concern was 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.
OSHA maintained this would improve safety at fire scenes, giving fire officials a clear picture of who is doing what and where. Opponents argued that the measure saddled the most experienced crew member with bureaucratic chores at a time when every second counts.
Accountability has been critical issue since a June 2007 at a Sofa Super Store in West Ashley killed nine Charleston firefighters. Investigators determined fire officials didn’t know who was in the furniture showroom when the roof collapsed.
North Charleston Fire Chief Greg Bulanow has insisted his department has a solid system for tracking firefighters’ whereabouts and is always looking to improve safety.
“We will continue to be steadfast in our duties to ensure the well-being of the citizens of North Charleston and their property, as well as the safety of the brave, dedicated men and women serving in the North Charleston Fire Department,” he said.
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.