Charleston Fire: The Fire Chief

Harvey Eisner interviews Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas.


The Charleston Fire Department operates 16 engines and three ladder trucks that serve a population of 110,000 in a 91-square-mile area. Staffing begins at four per rig, but normally there are three total. Chief Rusty Thomas has 31 years of service. The following is a basic interview about the...


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The Charleston Fire Department operates 16 engines and three ladder trucks that serve a population of 110,000 in a 91-square-mile area. Staffing begins at four per rig, but normally there are three total. Chief Rusty Thomas has 31 years of service. The following is a basic interview about the department before and after the fire. When I interviewed Chief Thomas, I was not allowed to discuss the specifics of the fatal fire in the furniture store, only the operations before and some changes after the fire.

FIREHOUSE: Does every firefighter have a portable radio?

THOMAS: Every single person that's on duty has a portable radio.

FIREHOUSE: The breathing apparatus that your department has?

THOMAS: Scott.

FIREHOUSE: Is that high-pressure, low-pressure?

THOMAS: That's the 2216, the 30-minute cylinders.

FIREHOUSE: Do you have a PASS device incorporated or is there a separate PASS device?

THOMAS: We use the Super 2 PASS device.

FIREHOUSE: Is there any specific gear you use?

THOMAS: We use Fire Dex.

FIREHOUSE: You carry booster, 1½-inch and 2½-inch fire hose?

THOMAS: That's correct.

FIREHOUSE: Do you have a good water system in the city?

THOMAS: Our water system through Charleston Water Systems is very good.

FIREHOUSE: How many dispatchers are on duty?

THOMAS: We have two on duty in the morning, two on duty on the second shift and one on duty on the third shift.

FIREHOUSE: What is the number of calls annually that the department responds to?

THOMAS: About 5,000 to 6,000 and that includes emergency medical calls, miscellaneous calls, fire calls, false alarms. Probably 68% are emergency medical calls.

FIREHOUSE: Do you have mutual aid agreements?

THOMAS: Tri-countywide and statewide, signed mutual aid agreements.

FIREHOUSE: Are there a lot of departments close to your borders?

THOMAS: That's about 12-15 different departments.

FIREHOUSE: Are there good-sized water mains where the fire occurred?

THOMAS: Yes.

FIREHOUSE: Is that an older area?

THOMAS: We have good water pressure and big-sized mains.

FIREHOUSE: Is there any type of procedure when there is a Mayday?

THOMAS: It's in writing and we had practiced that before.

FIREHOUSE: How does a fire dispatch occur?

THOMAS: We have the CAD (computer-aided dispatch) system. The initial call goes out to the closest stations. If the chief on scene needs more units, then he has the right to call for whichever trucks he wants, which is probably the closest next trucks.

FIREHOUSE: Would any of the companies be assigned as a rapid intervention team or a FAST team?

THOMAS: Yes.

FIREHOUSE: Is that the third engine company?

THOMAS: The third company in is what we call the RIT team. We used to call it the standby company.

FIREHOUSE: Do all the companies have a training period every day?

THOMAS: Every day Monday through Friday 9:30 to 11:30. Once a month, we hand out our training schedule. Everybody is training on the same thing every day. When the chief walks in to check on the training from 9:30 to 11:30, if today is airpacks, then everybody's training on airpacks.

FIREHOUSE: Is there anybody that's still off-duty because of the fire, for psychological or other reasons?

THOMAS: No. Everybody is back to work.

FIREHOUSE: Had units ever been to the location of the sofa store? Have there ever been any calls that you know of?

THOMAS: Yes. There was a call there. I don't have the exact date. There was a call a couple of months before for apparent electrical short.

FIREHOUSE: Is there any type of system that you had used for accountability or personnel accounting at the scene?

THOMAS: We have a policy in effect for a PAR (personnel accountability report) and where all battalions chiefs and the chiefs on duty get together. They know their people and we have a card system with a personal ID card. They actually take their ID cards and put it in the front seat of their fire truck every day for the people who are on duty.

The RIT team that you referred to, they used to call standby, it was a little more passive. Now they're aggressive. Now they're dispatching an extra engine. That extra engine is assigned RIT. Now it's a little more proactive.

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