Rolling the Dice

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."

The report reveals systematic presence of non-compliant building construction and fire code violations that had existed in that facility for very many years, going all the way back even to when the buildings were first constructed.

A quick glance at the aerial pictures and the site layouts in the report clearly shows that the fire access road widths and turning radius were not in compliance and the access to the site for firefighting was rather challenging to say the least. Also the water supply network capacity and the fire hydrants placement were deficient, and there were no fire hydrants in front of the building.

These types of site access and infrastructural water supply problems should have been addressed at the plans review stages, long before the approval and permitting phase of the building construction. But then, there was no plans review conducted for the many building additions at this facility. The report indicates that there were several buildings that were added to the site without approved plans and permits that were not in compliance with the building and fire codes, the addition of which would have required the entire facility to install fire sprinkler systems.

The report states that "the spaces between the warehouse and the showroom buildings were filled-in gradually by the addition of four smaller structures between 1996 and 2005. The sequence of construction was interpreted from a series of aerial photographs that were taken during that period. The City of Charleston files do not contain any records of building permits or permit applications for the four additional structures...The four additions that were constructed in the spaces between the showrooms and the warehouse interconnected three of the four larger structures and compromised the required fire separations between them. Their construction invalidated the building code provisions that allowed the four permitted structures to be constructed without automatic sprinkler systems". Undoubtedly, had these buildings been sprinklered, the final outcome of this fire would have been much different.

Not having approved plans and permits, and the absence of maintenance and annual fire inspection programs contributed significantly to the final outcome of this tragedy. Simply stated, fire prevention was completely ignored.

Take a look at the panel's findings and it should be clear that there were many points of intervention and prevention along the line that could have eliminated the fire hazards and addressed the deficiencies and would have significantly reduced the losses even in the case of a fire.

Honestly, is Charleston the only jurisdiction in this country that systematically ignores and does not have a high priority for the fire prevention programs? Indeed it is not. Although most metropolitan fire departments might not be as blunt as Charleston in officially eliminating their fire inspection programs, a majority of them do not have a high priority for their fire prevention programs.

The fact of the matter is that since the benefits of the fire prevention programs are long term and not as easily identifiable or measured as our fire loss statistics. Fire prevention is about the fire that did not happen.

Unfortunately, most of the fire departments throughout our country neither realize the significance and value of their fire prevention programs, nor truly appreciate it. We might talk a good game, but then we don't walk the talk. Do we?

Let's face it. We in the fire service ourselves do not truly recognize the importance of the fire prevention programs in protecting our own communities. We certainly don't view the tremendous value that fire prevention brings to the table in protecting our own firefighters, as we should.

Thus, as they say here in my gambling town of Las Vegas, we in the fire service simply "roll the dice" on the fire prevention programs. We gamble and take the risks, believing that the big one won't happen. And considering the probabilities, most of the time it doesn't; or at least that's what we want to believe. But then it is only a matter of time; and when our luck runs out and it does happen, then the consequences could be quite devastating. Don't believe me? Just ask the ISO Class 1 fire department in Charleston. How many of these very same kinds of buildings do you have in your own jurisdiction?

What we tend to downplay is the conceptual relationship between frequency and probability of an event versus the consequences and the final outcome. The frequency and probability of having a fire like they had in Charleston might be small; but as we saw, the consequences of such fire is tragic. Fire prevention programs assist us in lowering the probabilities of such events and drastically decrease the magnitude of the consequence. Logically then, fire prevention programs must be viewed as an integral part and one of the most significant functions of all fire departments', and must be viewed as a much higher priority for the fire service.

But even 35 years after the 1973 America Burning Report was first published, we in the fire service still don't have a high priority for fire prevention, do we? In all honesty, isn't it true that historically, during the tough economic times and the budget cutbacks and the layoffs (such as the dilemma that many of the jurisdictions are currently facing), fire prevention programs are the ones to bear the brunt, and the very first ones that get cut?

Why? Because, we in the fire service still view the fire prevention programs as non-essential and in a support role function and without direct relevance to the firefighters' safety, don't we? We don't view the fact that the fire prevention programs do actually save our own firefighters' lives, do we? Nine of our brothers in Charleston paid the ultimate price, because their leadership displayed just such archaic views of fire prevention and eliminated their fire inspection and maintenance programs.

The fire service must finally recognize that by cutting the fire prevention programs, not only do we "roll the dice" and risk the safety of our community, but also the lives of our own firefighters. The Charleston Sofa Super Store fire that took the lives of nine of our own brothers was a tragedy. We must never forget that this tragedy was the direct result of many years of accumulated neglect and disregard for the fire prevention and inspection programs.

Remember the saying that "you reap the harvest that you sow." And the panel's report clearly proves that discounting the fire prevention and inspection programs a decade ago, contributed directly and significantly to the size and progression of the fire and the magnitude of the tragedy in Charleston.

No, it was not only the tactical firefighting decisions that were made on the scene on that particular night that led to that tragedy; but also the decisions made many years earlier to ignore the fire prevention programs and to discontinue the fire inspections. We in the fire service must learn from that lesson, with the hope of not repeating the same mistakes anywhere else in the future.

In the article titled "Review, Changes Costly in Charleston" posted on the Firehouse.com on May 29, 2008, it was mentioned that "the city of Charleston has spent or set aside more than $7.4 million in response to the Sofa Super Store fire, much of it to improve its Fire Department. And with a variety of fire-related matters still unfolding, a drain on city coffers will continue".

The article continues "the fire department's operating budget last year was about $15 million, but that wasn't nearly enough to cover the improvements that were needed. The effort has already required the city's first property tax increase since 1999.

Routley said the amount of money the city is spending should send a message to other fire departments and the elected leaders who oversee them. "In some cases, it's catching up with money that could have been spent earlier. It's an expensive proposition, and it's a good reason to avoid firefighter fatalities". Routley is absolutely right. They are paying half of their fire department's annual budget to address the deficiencies of the past, and that cost is just the tip of the iceberg. Jurisdictions must be routinely reminded of that fact, to decrease the probabilities of such tragedies in future.

That same article also mentioned interesting statements from two members of the Charleston City Council, Timothy Mallard and Yvonne Evans, that could be expected of the politicians caught in such situations. Councilman Mallard said "I'm sick to my stomach that these expenditures are now thrust upon the city when all this time we have been told by the administration that we had the greatest fire department in the Southeast," he said. "The taxpayers unfortunately once again are going to have to bear the brunt of these expenditures because we have to fix the Fire Department to keep our citizens safe." And Councilwoman Evans stated that "it's easy for critics to assail city leaders for not paying for such upgrades before the fire...Council members have always been responsive to public safety issues and that the Fire Department never asked for more money. I feel quite sure that if the chief and his people felt they were lacking in some areas, they would have requested it."

It appears that the fire department is now being railroaded by the politicians, who are not only fast to cut the fire prevention programs, but also quick to find a scapegoat and blame others for their own failures in providing for their public's safety. After all, back in 2001, who amended the city's code to eliminate the fire inspections program, other than the council?

Undoubtedly, the outdated views of their fire chief in not recognizing the strategic importance of the fire prevention programs in protecting not only their community but also their firefighters, contributed to their council's false sense of confidence on the levels of fire protection provided to their community. But then, believing that the council would have actually provided the resources if the chief had only requested, as the councilwoman has suggested, is also far from today's political and economical realities.

In their introduction section, the panel explained the main purpose of their report as "this report and the resulting lessons and recommendations are specifically directed to the City of Charleston and to the Charleston Fire Department and its members. The incident analysis is equally intended to provide important information for the families and survivors of the nine deceased firefighters. The report is also intended to provide valuable information to a much larger audience of firefighters, public officials and other interested parties to help them understand the factors that contributed to the tragedy that occurred in Charleston and the lessons that should be taken from it".

Indeed, the panel did a great job with this report, and there are plenty of valuable lessons for all of us to learn. I believe that one of the most important lessons to remember is that we in the fire service must have a much higher priority for the fire prevention programs. Fire prevention is just as much about the protection of our own firefighters, as it is for the safety of our community. Remember that cutting the fire prevention programs during the tough economic times, is nothing more than "rolling the dice" on probabilities and gambling on the future outcome. The consequences could far outweigh the perceived immediate cost savings.

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AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. To read Ozzie's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at amirkhah@lasvegasnevada.gov.

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