Fire department report calls for sweeping change; coroner's report released

Thomas and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley comment in October 2007 on the fire report to be conducted by a panel of experts.

City officials had access to early draft, did 'fine-tuning' before release

Experts urge overhaul of tactics, leadership, training, equipment

The debate over problems within the Charleston Fire Department has raged for months, but critics and supporters alike agreed Wednesday that an expert report offers a detailed and sweeping road map for improvement.

Bringing the tradition-bound fire department up to accepted national firefighting practices will likely be time-consuming, expensive and require fundamental shifts in attitudes toward safety, training and leadership.

The city hired the six-member independent panel in August to recommend improvements in the wake of the June 18 Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine of the department's firefighters.

The resulting 38-page report is a manifesto for change. While short on direct criticism of the fire department and its leaders, the report calls for a top-to-bottom overhaul of tactics, leadership, training and equipment. It paints a stark picture of an insular department where leaders stifle dissent, rely on outdated methods and lack sufficient training and education.

The department's culture does not sufficiently emphasize safety and concentrates too much authority in the chief's office, the report said.

Without referring to Fire Chief Rusty Thomas or any department leaders by name, the report makes it clear that commanders do not place enough emphasis on training or keeping pace with current firefighting tactics and practices.

Thomas said he was excited about the report and that it signalled "a new era." Mayor Joe Riley called the report a "management analysis" that provides the city with "an opportunity and a responsibility to allow our excellent fire department to move to a new level of achievement."

The panel's recommendations touch on virtually every area of the department's management, organization and procedures and raise serious questions about the extent to which city firefighters were prepared and equipped to handle the fatal fire.

Harold Schaitberger, president of the world's largest firefighter organization, the International Association of Fire Fighters, said Riley's characterization of the report as a management review "minimizes the significance of the June 18 tragedy, the loss of nine dedicated lives, and the need for immediate and real change." He said the report demonstrates the need for new leadership at the fire department.

"This is a landmark report that highlights hundreds of problems and failures in a fire department whose policies and procedures contributed significantly to the deaths of nine firefighters," Schaitberger said.

While panel members say their report was written as though the sofa store fire never occurred, several of the panel's recommendations deal with issues that firefighters and experts from around the country have said played a role in the tragedy.

The panel has yet to tackle the specifics of the sofa store blaze — that's planned for phase two — but its report offers a detailed snapshot of the inner workings of the department at the time of the fire.

Gordon Routley, a former Louisiana fire chief who heads the panel, said the project was a massive undertaking in which the group basically conducted six months of work in six weeks' time.

"The part that is most surprising to us is the enthusiasm in accepting it," he said. In past consulting jobs, clients often "come back and say, 'Do we have to do that,' or 'Is that essential?' In this case, the client has said, 'You tell us what to do and we will get it done.' "

Panel members noted that the report is "directed toward identifying areas of concern."

City firefighters lack some basic equipment and conveniences to perform their jobs, from inadequate flashlights and hazardous work uniforms to worn out protective gear, outdated air tanks and firetrucks without air conditioning, the report said.

Other items won't cost a dime but are likely to be contentious, such as a recommendation that Thomas open a dialogue with "local organizations that represent the interests of firefighters." The primary organization that does that is the local firefighters union. The two sides have long had a prickly relationship, and some union members have called for Thomas' ouster in the wake of the fatal blaze.

Roger Yow, president of the Charleston Firefighters Association, said the union would accept an offer to meet, which "has been a long time coming."

In all, the panel's report contains nearly 200 recommendations, organized by subject area and priority. Among the issues identified as top priorities that should be implemented immediately or as soon as possible:

--Increase manpower by 15 percent to ensure that firetrucks have enough firefighters aboard to battle blazes safely and effectively.

--Provide more training and education throughout the fire department.

--Replace or upgrade a hodgepodge of protective gear that doesn't meet current firefighting standards.

--Ban dangerous tactics at fire scenes and adopt a culture in which "safety must become a primary consideration for all fire department activities."

--Spread leadership among department commanders and encourage rank-and-file firefighters to participate in decision-making and feel free to offer critical opinions.

--Establish an organized approach for responding to fires, based on severity.

--Upgrade equipment, such as buying larger supply lines and attack hoses that will allow firefighters to dump more water on a fire more quickly.

In coming years, the panel recommended, the department should:

--Hold public forums that allow residents to share their perceptions and expectations regarding the fire department.

--Update firefighting manuals and textbooks at all city fire stations.

--Purchase a simulator to educate firefighters about the warning signs of flashover, a process in which super-heated contents or structures spontaneously ignite.

--Create a multi-acre, state-of-the-art training facility and invite area departments to participate as part of a regional training program.

--Seek national accreditation through the Center for Public Safety Excellence, a process that could take years.

Several of the panel's other recommendations are tied to guidelines issued by the National Fire Protection Association, a fire-prevention organization on whose reports many firefighting standards are based.

Some of these standards were cited in the recent violations issued against the city by the state office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Riley and attorneys representing the city have argued that the city can't be held responsible for alleged violations that are based on standards that have not been adopted into state law.

The report also delves into fire protection issues in other city departments. For example, the panel recommends that the city's building inspectors work more closely with the fire department to check existing structures' fire code violations. The panel's report recommends that the fire department assign a liaison to coordinate with city building inspectors to reduce the risk of fires before firefighters have to respond.

City Councilman Henry Fishburne said the report was another indication of the "major problems" that have existed in the fire department. "This all clearly indicates that the mayor's assertion is incorrect. We do not have the best fire department or the best fire chief."

Jay Lowry, a former Charleston firefighter who has been chronicling the sofa store fire in his Internet blog, Firefighter Hourly, called the report "exhaustive," touching "every single aspect in the fire department."

"It's basically tearing down the fire department and rebuilding it," he said. "I don't understand how any department can have a report come in that recommends nearly 200 changes and yet contend that this is the best-led fire department in the country."

Riley and Thomas presented the recommendations to about one-third of the city's 240 firefighters Wednesday morning, and will brief the remainder of the department in the coming days.

Charleston firefighter Bill Haigler attended the meeting and said he is "very optimistic" that the recommendations will lead to much-needed improvements if all of them are adopted in a timely fashion. "We take them very seriously and think that the recommendations will make our jobs safer and easier."

Riley said the report will help the department soar to new heights. Asked what he thinks the report says about the state of the fire department before the sofa store fire, Riley said: "To me it says that we have a very good fire department. We were meeting standards and requirements but there are opportunities for the achievement of national-best practices."

Two of Riley's three opponents in the upcoming election disagreed with the mayor's assessment. Candidate Marc Knapp called the panel's report "scathing" and said it begs the question as to why all these improvements weren't done sooner, before nine men died. Candidate William Dudley Gregorie said the report shows that the tradition-bound fire department has been "holding the future hostage with the past."

Candidate Omar Brown did not return a call seeking comment.

Thomas said he is looking forward to having more help and advice on administrative and personnel issues. He conceded that the recommendations for a more open and democratic decision-making process differ from his hands-on management style. But he said he is ready for the change. "It's an amazing way for Rusty Thomas to look at it."

City Councilwoman Anne Frances Bleecker, whose district includes the sofa store ruins, praised the panel for its work and hailed Charleston's response to a tragedy as honoring "the memory of the brave individuals who perished that night."