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Let Us Use the Knowledge Wisely

Like many of you, I spent yesterday afternoon downloading and reviewing the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report on the fatal fire in Charleston, SC, back in 2007. The two-part treatise on the fire and their investigation of it was very informative. I would expect nothing less than such a solid examination of that tragedy by the pros at NIST.

It was indeed quite satisfying to see the precise methodology and solid list of recommendations which the report outlined. The methodical approach guaranteed that precious little would be missed in their review of this terrible incident. I have long believed that it is critical for research study projects like this to delve deeply into the major events which strike the fire service.

Let me make a very important distinction about the findings of the NIST report. It was designed and completed to deal with structural conditions and the manner in which the building behaved as the fire progressed. The issues about how the fire department culture and the manner in which it operated are a different issue indeed. These matters were well covered by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Heath (NIOSH) report and the technical assessment commissioned by the City of Charleston, which has commonly come to be known as the "Routley Report," after its primary consultant, Gordon Routley. I myself have weighed in on this matter on a number of occasions.

Far too many times during my career in the fire service I have seen similar tragedies which became the center of massive cover-ups. Concerns about litigation, finger-pointing, witch hunts, and the like have created a cone of silence over the facts of a particular situation. I have long held the belief that we need to uncover the causes for major tragedies. I also believe that the facts need to be widely circulated so that lives might be saved in future operations.

You will surely agree with me that the manifold array of operational mistakes made by the folks in charge of the Charleston Fire Department have been explored at length. We now have scientific evidence to back up these findings. We now have a better picture about how the condition of the building and the lack of installed automatic suppression worsened the scenario. We now have a report which outlines the consequences of the mistakes made prior to the operation, as well as during the conduct of this ill-fated fireground venture.

There can be no doubt that the lack of automatic fire sprinkler protection contributed heavily to the prodigious growth and spread of this fire. Yet, there are those in the building construction community who remain committed to battling our efforts to broaden the reach of installed automatic fire protection. Let me assure you that I am sick and tired of dealing with people whose sole concern in life is the size of their profit margin. How many dollars were saved by the failure of the furniture store to install sprinklers? How many dollars is a firefighter's life worth?

It bothers me to think that a great tragedy might have been averted, but for the failure of the City of Charleston to properly inspect the structure in question. It bothers me that all parties to the question are holding hands together and chanting that age-old refrain of "… it wasn't in the code." I am heart-sick when I think of the damage done to our society by selfish people, whose sole concern is an inward focus at self-enrichment. These are the people with whom we in the fire service cross swords time and again.

I think that it is particularly telling when the report states on page 6-2 that. "…Strict adherence to the 2006 model building and fire codes available at the time of the fire would have required the main showroom and the warehouse to be sprinklered." How much plainer could the argument be? When you combine this lack of compliance with a lack of permits for the work done at the building, you begin to see a pattern develop. Had the proper codes been followed, this could possibly have been a simple respond and mop-up job.

This major report lays it on the line. The computer modeling tells the story. Quite simply, the fire would have been held in place by the activation of installed fire protection. By the strength of its argument it equally proves the case for the major devastation through the mechanism of computer modeling. I have long been a fan of the work performed by NIST. I am heartened by their strong recommendations on the issue of ventilation and the role improper ventilation played in this incident. Let me assure you that I would expect such things from a fire department which placed little value in the need to properly staff and respond with the correct number of truck companies.

The computer modeling allows us to see the difference between what happened with the introduction of ventilation into the operational scheme at this fire. One need only look at the graph, which shows the fire growth caused by the ventilation used in this case, to see that we in the fire service need to devote more time and research to the use of fireground ventilation as a part of our standard operations.

Many years ago I called for the development of a research project which had at its core a study of what we do in our firefighting operations. At the time I asked whether we are still performing tasks on the fireground which were more suited to an earlier era in our nation's history. I was hooted down and assailed with a fury which I felt to be misplaced.

This particular argument took place at a Fire Department Instructor's Conference which predated the Charleston fire by at least three years. I cannot help but feel that a lack of effort by people charged with firefighter safety has left us adrift in a sea of skills and tasks better suited to a pre-World War II world. Should we always ventilate? Should we always stretch a line in and attack? The findings of this report suggest that the ventilation which was undertaken allowed the fire to race out of control.

Let me ask you again. Are we training our 21st Century Fire Service in operational methods which are no longer appropriate? Quite frankly my friends, I just do not know. Let me now apply a statement I have long used on the world of hazardous materials response: "If you don't know, you don't go."

There is another descriptive phrase which I use to impress the students in my firefighting courses about the dangers of interior structural firefighting. I tell my students that if they look at the burning building they are being called upon to enter and attack the fire, and they get a feeling in their guts that it would surely be stupid to enter the structure to fight the fire I say to them quite simply, "…go with your gut."

Let me suggest that I am no longer the young buck seeking to make my mark in the world of firefighting. As a man who has been to a fire or two during my 44-year career, I think that it is high time to develop a research project which will begin to assess the operational and environmental changes which have had an impact on the fire service.

This report from NIST would serve as an excellent point of embarkation for this challenging project. Let me urge the powers that be in our fire service to adopt this project as a tribute to the men who died in Charleston. Let me charge you that your next fire might be your last. We owe it to the people who broke us in, and to the people to whom we will hand over the fire service, to get this done.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his "A View From my Front Porch" blog. He recently published Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip. You can reach Harry by e-mail at