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...


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.

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