Charleston Fire Department Releases Progress Report

CHARLESTON, S.C.-- The panel looking into the operations of the Charleston Fire Department before and during the fatal furniture store fire last year returned to the city this week.

It was their turn to listen.

The fire department presented a progress report outlining what they've accomplished.

"I think we've shown that we are committed to making the fire department better," said Mark Ruppel, public information officer of the Charleston Fire Department.

Ruppel said Chief Rusty Thomas wanted to inform people that changes are being made.

"You have to remember that we got the first report (recommendations) on Oct. 18. I believe we've made quite a bit of progress..."

The panel of national fire service experts was appointed by Mayor Joe Riley following the June 18 fire that claimed nine Charleston firefighters.

They've been scrutinizing operations and policies of the department for the past several months.

Ruppel said safety issues have been tackled first.

"I believe the panel was impressed with our progress. We are taking their recommendations seriously."

Gordon Routley, panel chairman, said he was pleased with what he heard. "They showed that progress is being made. Things take time, and some things will take longer than others."

Routley said he has seen changes first hand on the fire scene. "We're very pleased with what we've observed. There is accountability. There are RIT teams available..."

New breathing apparatus and turnout gear have been ordered. A new pumper is on order, and five-inch hose has been purchased. "The tangible evidence (of progress) is there. We're encouraged by the direction they are going..."

While Thomas guides his department through the changes, panel members turn to the next phase -- an in depth analysis of the deadly fire. "We are working in cooperation with other agencies -- NIOSH, NIST, USFA."

Every single aspect will be examined including building construction, pre-planning, fire behavior as well as the actions of every firefighter who operated at the store that evening. Interviews are being conducted with personnel to determine what they saw and did that night.

Routley said the panel's objective is to pass on what they determine so it doesn't happen again.

The panel also will be offering its guidance as the department continues to implement changes. The strategic planning process will look at where the CFD should be in five or 10 years down the road.

Routley said the panel knew from the onset that changes would not occur overnight. "They're really making an effort. They've addressed several critical issues. We're impressed..."