Fire Service Learns from Charleston's Mistakes

The Phase II Report blamed the Charleston Fire Department in the deaths of nine firefighters last year at the site of the Sofa Super Store on June 18.

Last fall, officials from the Charleston Fire Department -- including Chief Rusty Thomas -- traveled to Montgomery County, Md. to train with what is considered one of the most advanced departments in the U.S.

Now, Montgomery County Fire-Rescue plans to learn from the department it taught. Chief Thomas Carr has ordered roughly 140 copies of the recently released Phase II Report to be distributed to his personnel and command staff.

Peter Piringer, the department's PIO and a member of the panel that created the report, says that number is more than what was initially printed in Charleston.

"It's a very powerful report," Carr said. "We've been encouraging the department to read it. In a week or so, we will send out a series of questions to stimulate conversation and get an idea of what they thought of the report."

Carr says he wants to focus the exercise on the context of benchmarking it with the department's current practices; something he believes will validate what they already do.

The 250-plus-page report released on May 15 was critical of the Charleston Fire Department; blaming training, communication problems and the overall culture of the department in the deaths of nine firefighters last year at the site of the Sofa Super Store on June 18.

The document is one of the most complete post-incident fire analyses conducted and some believe it will serve as a training tool for the rest of the fire service to learn from.

"I think that every department will have an opportunity to take something away from the Charleston report," Ronald Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, said.

The Oklahoma State University-Fire Service Training Center, one of the top training centers in the nation, has already begun implementing changes suggested in the report. Interim Fire Programs Manager Bob Allen said a panel has reviewed both phases of the report and are in the process of adopting its recommendations.

At the National Fire Academy in Emittsburg, Md., Fire Studies Specialist Kenneth Kuntz said changes to programs may be made, but that they want to see the final NIOSH report before making those decisions.

"It's a very well done report, but we're going to look at it in a combination with NIOSH report before we look at changing specific elements of our courses," he said.

Kuntz said, however, that it is not fair to compare what occurred in Charleston to how things are done in the fire service as a whole. "Other departments are just more sophisticated than Charleston," he said.

"What happened in Charleston was most regrettable; but it happened because they weren't following national training standards. This report isn't producing a lot of new recommendations. It's more of a plan for where Charleston needs to go to catch up."

Despite that, Kuntz said there is still much to be learned from the report. "You can always learn from other peoples' mistakes, you never learn much from your successes," he said. "This is going to be a seminal document."

Gordon Routley, who headed the review panel, said he hopes any department, no matter the location or size, can take something away from the report so they can "Either learn from it or use it as a checklist to make sure the same things couldn't happen to them."

"They shouldn't on how many things Charleston did wrong, but should instead ask themselves 'Do we do that? Can any of these things be done in our department?' "

Routley said a lot of the recommendations apply to all departments and that in most cases a majority of the departments out there have a building in their service area similar to the Sofa Super Store. He said it's a matter of recognizing the situations you can be in and implementing the proper standards to insure everything goes as planned.

"I think if we all stand back, we've heard all these things before," he said. "The report is more of an excuse to come back and focus on those things" so something like this doesn't happen again.