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CHARLOTTE — The Charleston Fire Department — still reeling from the deaths of nine firefighters — faces increasing criticism from unions that say the agency’s firefighting tactics don’t comply with state and national safety standards.
But Charleston Mayor Joe Riley responded Friday by saying the city’s firefighting policies are safe.
“I have absolute confidence in our procedures and in the leadership,” he said in a telephone interview with The Charlotte Observer.
Officials from the International Association of Firefighters said Charleston isn’t following commonly accepted standards that might have helped the firefighters who died in a June 18 furniture store blaze.
They pointed to the National Incident Management System, a standardized emergency response plan used by fire departments across the country.
Gov. Mark Sanford in 2005 issued an executive order directing all state and local emergency response agencies to adopt the system.
Despite Sanford’s order to adopt the federal standards, the state can’t force local agencies to comply, said John Paolucci, response and operations chief for the S.C. Emergency Management Division.
The union officials say closer adherence to those standards might have prevented what they see as questionable decisions by commanders at the fire scene.
The standards call for incident commanders to refrain from fighting the fire, said Mike Parrotta, president of the S.C. chapter of the International Association of Firefighters. The commander is supposed to stay outside to better coordinate efforts.
Parrotta said the standards also dictate that when command is passed, it should be done formally so the new commander gets a briefing.
Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin, who at one point was incident commander at the fatal fire, has told The Associated Press he went inside the Sofa Super Store three times to check the situation.
Firefighters from the nearby St. Andrew’s Fire Department have said Garvin also came around the back of the building with them as they rescued one employee from a warehouse.
At some point, nine Charleston firefighters got trapped in the front part of the structure.
Fire Chief Rusty Thomas eventually assumed command of the situation, but he told The Post and Courier of Charleston there was no formal passing of command. He said the Charleston department’s tradition is that the highest-ranking official is automatically in charge.
“I don’t care how it is any place else,” Thomas told the newspaper.
Thomas didn’t return a call Friday from The Observer.
Riley said his understanding is that federal regulations require only that the city have a formal incident command policy.
He said the city has one. It is written down, he added, and helped the city achieve a Class 1 fire rating, a designation only about three dozen other U.S. fire departments have reached. It requires new incident commanders arriving on scene to announce their presence on the radio, thus letting everyone — not just the previous commander — know the supervisor’s there.
Still, union officials say the city ought to reconsider.
“Any time you have a large loss of life, be it civilian or firefighters, you’re always saying, ‘Could we have done something different,’” said Larry Osborne, a vice president with the International Association of Firefighters.
“You should be reviewing every policy and procedure just as a matter of course.”
The mayor’s comments left it unclear whether the city believes it is in compliance with the federal incident management standards, or with other relevant federal rules. Riley said once investigations into the fire are complete, the city might consider making changes.