Recommendations address size, storage and number of units

Charleston firefighters wading through darkness and thick, black smoke at the Sofa Super Store fire on June 18 trusted their lives to the air flowing from tanks strapped to their backs.

Aside from an adequate supply of water, the Self Contained Breathing Apparatus, or SCBA, is among the most important tools in firefighting.

Yet, the city's fire department lacks adequate polices for maintaining, storing and testing this crucial piece of equipment, according to a report from a panel of consultants recommending ways to improve the department.

All nine of the firefighters killed at the sofa store died from smoke inhalation and severe burns. An air tank was found with each body inside the store and investigators are examining the condition of those tanks. No determination has been made.

Of the report's nearly 200 recommendations, several deal with these air tanks.

The department must "immediately" adopt a policy requiring firefighters to store air tanks at full capacity, the report says. The pressure at which tanks are stored is important because relatively small variances in air tank pressure can translate into valuable seconds of breathable air as firefighters navigate through a smoke-filled room. Each SCBA unit has a gauge attached that provides a pressure reading for determining how much air is in the tank.

Mayor Joe Riley said Wednesday that the fire department has issued a new policy on storing the tanks full.

The report also recommends that the department upgrade its hodgepodge of different brands of SCBA units to a single brand that meets all current national standards.

When looking to buy this new equipment, the city should consider purchasing larger-capacity air tanks that could provide up to 45 minutes of air, the panel recommends. Riley said Wednesday that the city intends to purchase the larger-capacity tanks.

The city now uses 30-minute air tanks, which may actually provide less air in real world conditions where firefighters are stressed and breathing heavily.

Firefighters also should be provided with individual face masks to deliver the air, the report says. Firefighters working different shifts now share these face masks, a practice that some health experts warn against because it can communicate diseases.

Other SCBA-related recommendations include purchasing a mobile air compressor to refill expired air tanks at fire scenes. At the sofa store blaze, some firefighters had to ask around for fresh tanks of air after they used up their first ones.

The state office of Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently cited the city for four violations stemming from the fire department's handling of the sofa store blaze. Among the violations, the state fined the city a total of $525 for four instances in which firefighters exposed to smoke and toxic substances did not wear air packs.

Burning sofas can emit dangerous fumes because they contain polyurethane foam, a highly combustible material that some fire protection experts liken to solid gasoline.

The city has appealed the state's findings and is awaiting a formal hearing.