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Charleston fire: Inadequate training partially to blame

By Ron Menchaca, Glenn Smith
The Post and Courier

A sprawling furniture store in violation of fire and building codes and a Charleston Fire Department over-confident in its ability to aggressively extinguish fires and totally lacking in modern tactics and equipment proved a deadly combination at the June 18 Sofa Super Store fire, according to a report from a city-appointed panel of firefighting experts.

Insufficient training, inadequate staffing, obsolete equipment and outdated tactics contributed to an ineffective response and effort to control the fire in its early stages, the report stated.

“The culture of the Charleston Fire Department promoted aggressive offensive tactics that exposed firefighters to excessive and avoidable risks and failed to apply basic firefighter safety practices,” according to a copy of the report obtained by The Post and Courier.

Fire commanders did not hear pleas for help from firefighters who were lost in the store’s maze-like layout, running out of air and struggling to navigate through coal-black smoke and super-heated air. Fallen firefighter Melvin Champaign called for help over his radio numerous times from inside the store. No one responded to his calls.

“The radio messages indicating that firefighters were in distress were not heard by anyone at the incident scene…” the report says.

The department’s policy at the time allowing firefighters’ air tanks to be only partially filled left some firefighters inside the store running out of air in as little as 12 or 13 minutes, according to the city-appointed panel.

The panel also found that the fire department was completely unprepared to fight a fire of the magnitude of the one on June 18. The department’s command system was virtually nonexistent, leaving firefighters without supervision or clear instructions and leaving commanders with no idea of who was where and doing what.

“The predominant factor identified in the analysis of Fire Department operations is the failure to manage the incident according to accepted practices,” the report states. “There was no structured incident command system in place and the essential duties of an Incident Commander were not performed. The operation was conducted in an unstructured and uncoordinated manner, without overall direction and with inadequate supervision. The Charleston Fire Department was inadequately staffed, inadequately trained, insufficiently equipped, and organizationally unprepared to conduct an operation of this complexity in a large commercial occupancy.”

The report paints a picture of the sofa store as a time bomb waiting to be lit.

“The fire could have been prevented. If the property had been constructed and maintained in accordance with state and local codes the fire would have been quickly controlled: no lives would have been lost and the fire would have been of little consequence,” according to the report.

For a look at the complete report, go to www.charleston.net

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