Firefighters rush into a burning commercial building with too-small hoses and insufficient water. The commander can’t reach them because the captain forgot his radio. Backup crews aren’t sure where to go or what to do. Confusion reigns as the building’s truss roof collapses in an explosion of flames.
This reads like the playbook from the deadly Sofa Super Store fire in June 2007, but it’s not. These dangerous missteps occurred at a March 1 blaze on Daniel Island, according to an internal report obtained by The Post and Courier.
They occurred despite nearly four years of intensive and expensive efforts to instill a culture of safety in the Charleston Fire Department.
What’s more, the commander in charge that day — a man repeatedly faulted in the in-house review of the blaze — was recently promoted to a top position in the department. And that’s causing some dissension in the ranks.
City fire officials stand behind their promotion of Troy Williams to battalion chief, and they said the portion of the draft report that leaked to the newspaper is incomplete, unfair, unofficial and riddled with inaccuracies.
Fire Chief Thomas Carr acknowledged problems at the fire, which gutted a two-story office building at 899 Island Park Drive. That’s why he authorized a six-member committee of firefighters to conduct what’s known as a critical incident review.
But Carr said he rejected the resulting draft report when it landed on his desk six weeks ago because it had errors and failed to live up to its intended purpose, which is to be an educational tool, not an instrument for blame.
“I was appalled at the material in there,” Carr said. “We did have some issues with that call, and we want to get learning out of that. The way to do that is not to beat everyone up, but to give feedback in a positive way.”
The 12-page portion obtained by the newspaper describes “major” violations of policy and assigns blame for those mistakes. It raises questions about the handling of the blaze, the effectiveness of the training firefighters have received and the integrity of the promotion process.
It also highlights the continuing conflict between the department’s hard-charging past and its new, risk-sensitive methods.
Carr and his commanders said the rejected section of the report was authored by one member of the committee whom they did not identify. Carr said the final report is still being retooled and fact-checked, and cannot be released because it’s tied up in an unresolved personnel dispute involving a fire captain disciplined in connection with the blaze.
It’s unclear how long the final document will be, and fire officials aren’t sure when it will be available to the public.
Williams, 47, a main target in the draft report, said he wasn’t even interviewed by the document’s author, and he disputes some of the mistakes attributed to him.
He said he might have deviated from department procedures that day, but that is because he inherited a chaotic mess when he arrived on the scene and had “a lot of work to do” to safely remedy the situation.
Williams, who joined the department in 1995, said he is also aware of internal grumbling from critics who think he is unqualified to be battalion chief because he dropped out of school at 14 and never received a high school equivalency diploma.
But Williams, who also serves as chief of the C&B Fire Department in Ladson, said he has a wealth of experience and earned his promotion by having the highest test score of those in line for the job. Carr concurred, saying Williams was promoted as a result of a fair and impartial process.
The March fire was reported at 2:38 a.m., and the first crew to arrive reported heavy flames showing from the second floor. The property, which sold for $2.5 million in 2008, was home to offices, including those of a pediatrician and an orthodontist.
The first crew arrived within a minute of the call, but flames already were chewing through the second floor and the roof, fire officials have said. “This fire was burning well before we got the call,” fire department spokesman Mark Ruppel said.
Firefighters brought the blaze under control within an hour, but the fire burned for at least five hours. The blaze caused no injuries, but damage to the building was extensive.
Seeing an opportunity to learn from the blaze, Carr authorized a review by a committee of a half-dozen firefighters from Charleston and neighboring departments, led by Battalion Chief Joey Roberts.
They interviewed crews on the scene that night, reviewed radio transmissions from the blaze and determined findings and recommendations based on the department’s own policies and procedures.
Capt. Richard Blanton took the brunt of the hit from the draft report. Blanton, a 34-year veteran who was competing with Williams for the open battalion chief position, said he is being demoted to an entry-level firefighter’s rank as a result of mistakes identified in the report.
He doesn’t deny that he made missteps. But he doesn’t understand why he is being demoted while Williams got a pass on what he considers to be more serious violations.
“I am getting hung out to dry over this,” he said. “It’s unfair and it’s unjust.”
Blanton and other firefighters said they suspect that department leaders tried to delay the report’s release in order to sweep the episode under the rug and fend off criticism of Williams’ promotion.
Deputy Chief John Tippett said that’s not the case. He acknowledged controversy over the fire, but he insisted the department acted quickly to correct problems identified at the scene.
Commanders critiqued the fire and shared the lessons learned. Firefighters from Charleston and neighboring departments also went through intensive remedial training as a result of the incident, he said.
Carr said he considers the blaze to be a bit of an aberration, but it did raise concerns. The incident prompted a departmentwide review of how well firefighters understood the new procedures and tactics.
They found some issues, “but it wasn’t rampant,” Carr said. Annual evaluations will now be conducted to ensure everyone is up to speed on the skills required of them, he said.
Though Carr credited Williams with being the first to recognize some problems with Daniel Island crews after the fire, he too was required to undergo remedial training.
At the time of his November promotion, Williams said, he also signed a contract pledging to get his GED. He said he looks forward to completing the education he had to abandon long ago to care for his sister after his father died and his mother was institutionalized.
A new approach
Still, the fire department’s draft report raises questions about the effectiveness of the multimillion-dollar, top-to-bottom overhaul of the department the city embarked on in the wake of the Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine firefighters on June 18, 2007.
Investigations of that fire revealed deficiencies in leadership, training, tactics and equipment. As a result, the city spent more than $8 million on improvements and hired Carr to usher in modern firefighting techniques and standards.
Under the old way of doing business, firefighters aggressively piled into burning buildings pell-mell and began “pouring wet stuff on the red stuff.” Carr initiated a more coordinated, choreographed approach to fighting fires in line with national standards.
The department’s skimpy book of standard operating procedures grew into a fat volume of guidelines spelling out duties and tactics in great detail. Fire crews drilled relentlessly to keep up with the many changes and a more regional approach to firefighting.
The idea was to make these practices second-nature and to avoid firefighters taking unnecessary risks.
Fire officials initially pointed to the Daniel Island blaze as an example of lessons learned, of placing firefighters’ lives above the value of property. Tippett, in an interview with The Daniel Island News, singled out Williams for praise, saying Williams’ quick thinking prevented a potential catastrophe by pulling crews from the building.
“I think the decisions of the initial arriving commander were stellar,” Tippett told the newspaper. “It doesn’t get any better than that. ... He did a phenomenal job.”
The draft report shows the review committee reached a much different conclusion. The document cited a host of mistakes by fire crews that night, from confusion over assignments and unfamiliarity with the location of hydrants to unnecessary radio chatter and dangerous pump operations that risked damaging a truck supplying water to firefighters.
Many of these same criticism had been leveled at firefighters in the 2007 sofa store blaze.
Blanton, captain of the first arriving engine, and Williams, the incident commander, were singled out for the harshest criticism in the report. Among other things, the report faulted Blanton for:
Leading his crew into the burning commercial building without backup and without fully sizing up the blaze and the dangers it presented. Like the Sofa Super Store, the building had a truss roof that was susceptible to collapse when exposed to flame, and department rules bar entry under those conditions.
Entering the building without his emergency radio and the crew’s thermal imaging camera. That left him no with way to contact the outside and no means for detecting fire hidden in walls and ceilings.
Failing to hook up with a hydrant before making entry and rushing in with undersized hose lines. That left the crew with the limited water supply from the truck and insufficient flow to battle the blaze.
The report also took aim at Williams, who said he arrived at the scene about two minutes after Blanton. Among other things, the report accused Williams of violating procedures by:
Failing to signal for an evacuation or call for a mayday after he couldn’t reach Blanton by radio. Instead, Williams is accused of abandoning the command post to go looking for the crew on his own in the “hot zone” without proper protective gear, also a criticism of firefighters at the sofa store blaze.
Waiting more than 30 minutes into the fire to determine who was doing what and where, and failing to check on the status of firefighters after the roof collapsed to make sure they were all right. This was a significant issue at the sofa store fire as well, when officials had no idea who or how many were in the building when the roof came down, trapping the nine men who died.
Failing to consult a Fire Department survey of the building to see what potential hazards existed inside and allowing crews to operate in potential collapse zones where the building could fall on them.
Overall, recordings and interviews determined that Williams, as incident commander, “was operating well outside the span of his control” and failed to delegate responsibilities in line with the size and complexity of the fire, the draft report stated.
Promotions and demotions
Blanton, a fire captain since 1994, said the initial actions he took were based on his belief that the fire involved no more than a room and its contents, and that dousing it quickly could save the building.
He said he acknowledged his mistakes and did not contest the two weeks of remedial training he was ordered to undergo from Williams or his temporary reassignment to the fire inspections office.
Blanton said he was stunned, however, when Tippett informed him that he was being busted down in rank and would have to undergo two weeks of basic training like a new recruit.
Before the fire, Blanton had been in line for a promotion after serving as an acting battalion chief on and off since 1999. In that time, Blanton said, he had never been faulted or written up for his actions.
“I’m not saying I didn’t make mistakes. I did, and I owned up to them,” he said. “But I got demoted and Troy got promoted. And his mistakes were way more serious than mine.”
Carr said personnel rules prevent him from discussing the disciplinary action against Blanton, but he denied the veteran was being treated unfairly.
Williams said Blanton never should have gone into the building in the first place, and he exposed his crew to grave risk. Blanton’s initial errors also compromised the rest of the response. “He made a tremendous amount of mistakes,” Williams said. “I’m not saying I’m perfect. But I had a lot to overcome by the time I arrived on the scene.”
Williams said he had not seen a copy of the draft report on the fire until The Post and Courier provided him one last week. He contested several findings, saying he never abandoned his post, didn’t enter the building without gear and didn’t place crews in the collapse zone.
He said he had no reason to call for a mayday because he was able to alert one of Blanton’s crew to tell the captain “get the hell out of the building.”
Fire officials backed him up on several of these points. Deputy Chief Frank Finley, for instance, said Williams never relinquished command; he simply went “mobile,” which is allowed under the guidelines.
Williams said he didn’t want the assignment to retrain Blanton but did so at Carr’s request. Despite involving others and trying numerous approaches, he said, Blanton just couldn’t get up to speed with the new way of doing things.
“I did everything I could to get him retrained and save his job,” he said. “But if you don’t have it after 30 years, I can’t save you.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or on Twitter at @glennsmith5.