Danger lurking in furniture stores

Charleston firefighters Lester Lasmarias (right) and Alan King make their way through displays of furniture Monday at the Morris Sokol Furniture Store on King Street.

Brad Nettles

When Dixie Furniture manager Skip Dawson surveys his King Street showroom, he sees a sprawling inventory of sofas, chairs and bedding in attractive displays that help customers picture these pieces in their own homes.

Firefighters see something else entirely: a maze of partitions, row after row of flammable upholstery and steel truss ceiling supports that can warp and collapse in high heat.

"John Public doesn't think about it, and the store manager doesn't think about it. They're just trying to maximize their floor space," said Engineer Stephen Shuler of the Charleston Fire Department. "But furniture stores are every firefighter's nightmare."

Shuler and his colleagues understand the danger all too well. On Thursday, they will mark the second anniversary of the fast-moving fire that killed nine Charleston firefighters on June 18, 2007 at the Sofa Super Store.

In the days leading up to that anniversary, firefighters are revisiting some 80 furniture stores throughout the city to review floor plans, assess potential risks and devise strategies for fighting fires in these businesses. The idea is to better educate themselves and store workers about possible dangers and steps that can be taken to prevent disasters.

The effort is part of a national campaign started by the Monroe County (N.Y.) Fire Marshals and Inspectors Association this year to honor the nine Charleston firefighters who died. They asked fire departments throughout the United States and Canada to update or complete plans for battling fires in furniture stores in their areas. Fire service organizations and Web sites have spread the idea to thousands of departments across the nation.

William Timmons, a fire battalion chief and fire marshal in Monroe County, said he got the idea for the campaign after attending a class at the National Fire Academy in Maryland that focused on the sofa store blaze. "I just thought this was a way we could honor the sacrifice that's been made while trying to prevent another tragedy," he said.

Charleston Fire Chief Thomas Carr applauded the idea. Many people don't fully understand the risk posed by upholstered furniture, much of which is filled with polyurethane foam so flammable that some call it "solid gasoline," he said. It burns so hot and so quickly that people can become trapped before they have a chance to escape.

"This certainly raises awareness of a very dangerous situation that has not received significant attention but can certainly have catastrophic results," Carr said.

Furniture store operators seemed to welcome the idea and readily invited Charleston firefighters inside to take a look.

"The more the merrier," said Joe Sokol, president of Morris Sokol Furniture on King Street. "Anything we can do to help us and them get better, then it's better for everyone."

In Sokol's store, firefighters noted the dense layout, the lack of sprinklers and the massive inventory of combustible materials. But they also recognized that they and furniture store owners often have different agendas.

Fire officials prefer store layouts with wide aisles and lanes that offer a clear path of exit. Furniture store personnel are told just the opposite, that flat, straight layouts aren't as appealing to a customer's eye. Their ideal is to create angled pathways that flow through the store, leading customers from one room design to the next.

Dawson, of Dixie Furniture, said he doesn't worry about the prospect of a fire. The 64-year-old business has plenty of fire extinguishers, wide aisles and multiple exits for escape. "I promise you, if a fire breaks out here, I can get out of the building," he said.

But Shuler, of Engine Co. 15, worries about what happens when the toxic smoke produced by burning furniture fills the store and reduces visibility to almost nothing. That's why planning visits are so important, to build the knowledge and familiarity that might save a firefighter's life one day. "You just hope you never have to use it," he said.