Rolling the Dice

Honestly, is Charleston the only jurisdiction in this country that systematically ignores and does not have a high priority for the fire prevention programs?

June 18 marks the first anniversary of the Charleston, SC, Sofa Super Store fire that took the lives of nine of our brothers from the ranks of the Charleston Fire Department. Since then, there have been several official investigations and numerous articles written about this tragedy.

The City of Charleston Post Incident Assessment and Review Team, headed by Gordon Routley, released their initial findings in their Phase 1 report back on Oct. 16, 2007. After several delays and the eventual retirement announcement of the Fire Chief Rusty Thomas, the panel's much anticipated Phase 2 report was finally released a few weeks back.

Undoubtedly, there will be extensive attention by many of our fire service leaders in analyzing the tactical firefighting aspects of the panel's Phase 2 report. The focus of this article though, is on pages 26 through 45 of the report that provides an in-depth description of the building construction, and underlines the importance of the fire prevention and safety concepts that are realized through the inspection programs.

The report did an excellent job of identifying the building construction and the fire prevention deficiencies. The summary of their findings indicate that:

"The fire at the Sofa Super Store could have been prevented, and should have been quickly controlled, if the property had been constructed and maintained in compliance with the building and fire codes:

  • The fire could have been prevented if the discarded combustible materials had not been improperly stored in close proximity to the building and/or if the employees had not been permitted to smoke in proximity to this fuel supply.
  • The loading dock enclosure was constructed without permits and did not meet building code requirements. If the loading dock had not been enclosed by exterior walls and a roof, the fire probably could have been controlled before the flames spread beyond the area of origin. The loading dock enclosure caused the fire to spread to all of the contents within the loading dock and then to adjacent areas.
  • If building permits had been obtained for the construction of the loading dock and workshop additions, the owner would have been required to install an automatic sprinkler system or additional fire walls.
  • If an automatic sprinkler system had been installed and properly maintained, the fire would have been quickly controlled and would have caused relatively minor damage.
  • If a system of fire walls had been constructed and properly maintained (as an alternative to a sprinkler system), the fire would not have spread beyond the loading dock.
  • The presence of improperly stored flammable and combustible liquids within the loading dock, in quantities greater than the Fire Code would permit for incidental use, probably accelerated the fire and enabled it to spread more quickly to the adjoining areas.
  • The inadequate number of exits, locked exits, and obstructed paths to exits significantly reduced the potential for firefighters who were inside the showroom buildings to find a path to safety."

From this list, it should be quite obvious that there were many fire code violations with respect to the occupancy, type of use, unsafe conditions directly related to the daily operation and the building maintenance, where stringent fire prevention measures such as conducting annual fire inspections could have identified and addressed. That way, even in the event of the fire, the consequences would not have been so tragic.

But then the report indicates that "the Sofa Super Store had not been inspected by the City of Charleston for code enforcement purposes since 1998. A fire inspection that was conducted in 1998 identified several fire code violations which the owner was notified to correct. The violations that were noted included obstructed paths to exits and exit signs in need of repair. The inspection report did not identify any non-permitted additions to the buildings and did not refer to spray finishing operations or improper use and/or storage of flammable liquids. It could not be determined if the additions had been constructed or if the non-permitted activities were occurring at the time of the inspection. The annual fire inspection program for commercial occupancies was discontinued after the 1998 inspection was conducted. The City of Charleston Code was amended in 2001 to remove a mandatory requirement for annual fire inspections in mercantile occupancies."

This content continues onto the next page...