Charleston Improves Safety, Focuses on Maydays

Last summer, Charleston firefighters responded to a blaze that would provide them with their first test of what they had been preparing for over the course of the previous three years.

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While crews attempted to knock down the blaze, five firefighters were on the second story of the burning structure when the floor gave way in the area where three of them were standing.

One firefighter held onto a windowsill, another grabbed onto a wall joist and a battalion chief grabbed onto one of the two firefighters who did not fall.

A Mayday was sounded and all three firefighters were safely out of the blaze within minutes and were evaluated by EMS before returning to the job.

The incident on June 23, 2010 at the fire at Huger Steet and Rutledge Avenue was the first and only Mayday the department has had to respond to since the Sofa Super Store fire claimed the lives of nine firefighters on June 18, 2007.

"Everyone was ready and RIT was activated," Battalion Chief Bryan Kleskie said, looking back on the incident. "We didn't have to complete whole procedure, but we were ready."

Kleskie, a 25-year veteran of the department, volunteered for the job of safety officer just months following the tragic 2007 blaze after a review panel recommended the creation of the position.

He said that a lot has changed since the fire that brought a critical eye on the city's fire department and that implementing new safety standards has been a continuing process.

"It's not an apples to apples sort of thing, it's just different now," he said about the metamorphosis of the department. "When you make one change, there're three or four that have to go along with it."

There is new equipment, updated risk management and health and safety plans and new hiring and promotional tests focusing on safety.

In early 2008, firefighters were put through RIT training, which has been ongoing since then.

"Everyone is a lot more focused on safety," he said. "It's not they weren't aware of it before, but they pay a lot more attention to it now."

While most firefighters jumped on board with the department's increased focus on safety, Kleskie said there were still some misconceptions of safety training that had to be overcome.

"I think some of them thought we'd do all of this stuff and it would be done, but that's not the way it works," he said. "Training doesn't end. You have to keep going with it, keep practicing."

The department also has been a part of a regional firefighter SOP that has been in effect for over a year now, something he credits to helping improve communication with neighboring department as well creating a more efficient response.

"Everyone is on the same playing field now," he said. "It's spelled out where everyone is going."

But even with the best preplanning, something can always go wrong. Kleskie said that through better preparedness, the department is now better prepared for the "what ifs" of the fire ground.