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Observer editorial: Fire leadership at fault

This editorial appeared in the Charlotte Observer on Aug. 10:
There is no way to put a good face on what happened March 7 in a mill blaze in Salisbury. Two firefighters perished, and serious violations of state regulations by supervisors may have led to their deaths.
That finding by N.C. Department of Labor investigators demands a full, open response by the fire department and by Fire Chief Bob Parnell. The public has a right to expect that substantial changes will be made ó and a right to know in detail what those changes will be. The city’s firefighters and their families deserve to know, too, that steps have been taken to keep similar mistakes from happening again.
Last week the state labor department cited the Salisbury Fire Department and fined it $6,563 in connection with a blaze at Salisbury Millwork that took the lives of firefighters Justin Monroe, 19, and Victor Isler, 40. The men died after the fire spread from the office to a warehouse they were trying to protect.
Specifically, the report noted during the blaze the fire department broke state rules four times when it did not ensure firefighters remained in “visual and voice contact” when entering conditions described as “immediately dangerous to life and health.” That means a firefighter or firefighters stepped into a potentially deadly situation without contact with anyone else.
The report also noted that respirators ó a life-saving piece of equipment ó did not fit firefighters properly. It additionally cited the department for allowing firefighters to enter the burning building without first posting two firefighters outside to monitor the blaze, as regulations require.
A fire is a chaotic event, but those are inexcusable mistakes. They could have and should have been prevented with training, preparation and proper leadership.
The labor department recommended Salisbury re-train all firefighters on survival skills. It urged action as well on radio problems reported during that fire that may have accounted for firefighters not following rules. If those things have not been done already, they should be.
What’s more, the city should be seeking new leadership for its fire department if Chief Parnell does not own up to his responsibility. In the days after the fire, he would not publicly answer questions about what happened. Now he has been equally silent about the state citations.
A fire chief is responsible for the training of his department and for the safety of men and women who are asked to do a dangerous, essential public job. The public needs to know everything that can be done will be done to make sure the rules are followed. That’s especially true for firefighters and their families.
A fire chief should either respect that or find other work.

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