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Editorial: A step forward on tragic fire

State safety officials say they found “serious” violations in the March fire that claimed the lives of firefighters Justin Monroe and Victor Isler. Salisbury City Manager David Treme and Fire Chief Bob Parnell, while acknowledging some problems, say they were not factors in the deaths at the Salisbury Millwork fire.
Even if they didn’t directly contribute to the tragedy of March 7, however, addressing the issues raised in the report might help save a life in the future.
And at this point, that is what the ongoing re-examination of the fire should focus on. While it’s important that people in authority be held accountable for any errors that were made, the priority should be correcting those errors and revising policies as needed ó for the sake of better protecting the firefighters and other emergency service workers who will respond to the next conflagration, hazardous chemical spill or catastrophic freeway accident that may put them in harm’s way.
The city of Salisbury has already taken one important step outlined in the report from the N.C. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Division. It will upgrade its fire communication abilities by purchasing portable radios that will be more reliable and durable than the devices currently in use. As this fire so graphically illustrated, firefighters sometimes work under intensely stressful, chaotic conditions. It’s vital that they maintain constant communication with their colleagues as well as command posts, and upgraded radios should help them do that.
The purchase of this equipment points to another important issue ó one that is not directly raised in the state report but should be on the minds of local officials and the community as we continue sifting through the lessons of the millwork fire. While a tragedy such as this inevitably raises questions about what happened during a few crucial moments at the scene, it also should raise questions about the non-crisis decisions that affect the equipment, training and other resources that we provide for all of our safety workers ó whether firefighters, police, sheriff’s deputies or emergency medical workers. Outcomes aren’t determined solely by decisions at the fire scene, but in budget and personnel decisions hashed out far from the smoke and flames.
Along with pointing to potential communication problems, the state report also cited lack of fit-testing for respirators and violation of safety rules regulating the coordination of firefighting teams to ensure that no firefighter becomes, in essence, left on his own. Treme and Parnell dispute the reports findings on these counts, and they will have an opportunity to rebut the report’s findings.
It’s important to note that, while the report cited violations, it also commended the Salisbury Fire Department for having a “well-written and effective safety program” that made firefighter safety “a top priority.” The fact that a report offered praise while finding violations isn’t a contradiction. Firefighters know that, even under the best circumstances, theirs is a perilous occupation and the risks can never be entirely eliminated. That makes it all the more crucial that they have the benefit of the best possible equipment and training we can provide.

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