Firefighters Need to Know

May 19, 2008
History of buildings like the Sofa Super Store has shown that enclosed structures are highly prone to producing multiple life threatening hazards.

With great anticipation firefighters are reading the Charleston Phase II Report to learn of the events as they unfolded almost one year ago. This report was well researched and professionally developed with the goal of helping to prevent yet another similar tragedy in the future.

What was delivered by the task force was valuable tactical and operational information and recommendations that served to elevate the Charleston Fire Department to a level equal to the most progressive departments in the nation. Some of the many nationally approved procedures and practices recommended included: The use of an incident command system, safety officers, an accountability system, adequate staffing, the use of five-inch large diameter hose, standard nozzles, thermal imaging cameras, establishment of adequate water supplies, general training, SCBA storage procedures and so forth.

Excellent timelines, photos and diagramming of advanced hose lines of various diameters and associated pressures and flows were also given. An outstanding analysis of the building construction, high fuel load present and of the heat and smoke build up and spread within the interstitial space was especially informative and clearly described precisely what the firefighters were up against.

This report accomplished many objectives to reach its goal. It provided the recommendations necessary to bring the Charleston Fire Department up to nationally acceptable firefighting practices and procedures.

A safety problem however still exists. If a repeat of this type of tragedy is to be avoided in the future, an underlying problem must be addressed. Although Charleston is on the way to rising to operational levels seen in many other departments, all firefighters need to be elevated to an even higher level of safety and awareness as it pertains to the extreme dangers associated with this type of structure.

The Super Sofa Store had the structural characteristics of a classic large enclosed structure, which has been defined as a structure having very few windows or doors of sufficient number and size for prompt ventilation and emergency evacuation. History has also shown that enclosed structures are highly prone to producing multiple life threatening hazards that engulf firefighters when fast and aggressive interior attacks are initiated. These included violent flashovers, backdrafts, collapses of roofs and floors and prolonged zero visibility conditions, all of which may cause firefighter disorientation leading to serious injury, narrow escapes or firefighter fatalities.

This information has been slowly emerging in the fire service over the years but is information every firefighter needs to know simply because of the serious safety issue at hand. An offensive strategy, which may protect firefighters so well in other structure fires, such as a fire at a residence without a basement, has been shown to be ineffective and unsafe if used during the course of an enclosed structure fire. These can be of any size, age, configuration, construction type or occupancy type.

During past fatal enclosed structure fires, arriving firefighters misinterpreted the initial size up factors and according to established standard operating procedures made an aggressive interior attack to search for the seat of the fire or to conduct a primary search. However, as interior conditions deteriorated, those firefighters who were separated from a handline or encountered entangled handlines became disoriented when they lost the ability to see within the structure for prolonged or sustained periods of time, depleting their air supplies as they desperately attempted to exit the building.

A firefighter disorientation sequence clearly unfolded in Charleston which leads to the tragic loss of nine firefighters who had every intention of knocking the fire out and heading back home. But as in many other cases involving some of the nation's most progressive and aggressive departments, the outcome was also unfavorable. A few of the many fatalities which have taken place at large enclosed structure fires include: Worcester, MA, Chicago, Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York City, Coos Bay, OR, Hackensack, NJ, Chesapeake Bay, VA, St.Louis, Pittsburg, Fall River, MA and Memphis, TN. And they have not stopped. Since the Charleston fire, firefighters initiating aggressive interior attacks have lost their lives in enclosed structure fires involving a Chinese restaurant in Boston, a vacant high-rise building in Manhattan and most recently, in a large enclosed structure with a basement, involving a millwork warehouse in Salisbury, NC.

The Task Force Report is excellent and should be read by all firefighters, especially chief, safety and training officers everywhere so that appropriate tactical changes can be made. In that spirit, and in memory of the nine from Charleston, solutions to the enclosed structure and disorientation problem are also offered for your consideration.

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WILLIAM R. MORA, a Contributing Editor, is a Captain in the firefighting division of the San Antonio, TX, Fire Department. William has done extensive research on the topic of firefighter disorientation including the analysis of 444 structural firefighter fatalities and is the author of the United States Firefighter Disorientation Study 1979-2001. To read William's complete biography and view their archived articles, click here. You can reach William by e-mail at [email protected].

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