Lapse in protection concerns some experts
The Post and Courier
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Some firefighters and fire safety experts say it's troubling that some department chiefs, identifiable by their white helmets, are not wearing full protective gear on the scene of the sofa store fire.
Men in shorts and T-shirts pulling firehose. Firefighters wading through toxic smoke without air packs. Others, with open coats and no helmets, standing mere feet from a flaming, crumbling facade.
These were among the numerous instances in which Charleston firefighters placed themselves in unnecessary jeopardy at the June 18 fire at the Sofa Super Store, dozens of firefighters and fire safety experts say.
Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said Wednesday that everyone who entered the building to fight fire, including the nine men who died, was fully dressed in protective coats, pants, helmets, air masks and other gear. But he said he doesn't hold people outside burning buildings to the same standard because they are at less risk.
But federal workplace safety rules and nationally prescribed standards call for firefighters to dress in full protective gear whenever they set foot on the scene of a structural blaze.
"Anyone that's actively participating in the suppression of that fire, inside or outside, is subject to those standards," said David Diehl, a captain with the East Chicago Fire Department in Indiana and an OSHA compliance instructor for private industry. Not wearing full gear is dangerous and it can open the city and department to huge legal liabilities in court, he said.
While firefighting is an inherently dangerous profession, protective gear offers firefighters their best chance of avoiding serious burns, smoke inhalation or worse.
Photos and video footage from the sofa store fire have prompted questions and criticism from numerous firefighters and fire safety experts from around the country, in part because some images show the department chiefs not properly wearing safety equipment. These are aspects that state and federal investigators will look at as they examine the fire and the department's procedures and training.
Henry Howard, a retired fire chief who lives in Vallejo, Calif., has served on state and national fire safety committees. Howard said he was stunned to see images of some Charleston firefighters running around outside the blazing building with open coats, no helmets, eye protection or gloves.
"You see it over and over there, and it's a complete breakdown of the system. That is their first line of defense, it has to be there," Howard said. Safety standards "do not seem to be ingrained into that department's psyche."
The helmets, boots and jackets worn by firefighters are as much a part of the profession's iconic image as red fire engines and loyal Dalmations. Over the years, technological improvements have made this gear lighter, more durable and capable of withstanding greater heat. But the best equipment in the world can be worthless if it's not worn or not worn properly, experts say.
Photos show safety lapses
Newspaper photos culled from a variety of Charleston fires in recent years show a troubling trend.
In one taken at a fire earlier this year on James Island, a firefighter with no mask or coat clears away smoldering debris from the interior of a charred building. In another, taken at a 2002 fire at the Francis Marion Hotel, a firefighter with no helmet or air mask peers from the window of a smoke-filled hotel room. In a third, a battalion chief scales the roof of a burning home in 2002, his air pack left behind and his suspenders hanging down to his knees, where they could catch on something and cause him to become trapped.
Thomas examined these photos and others Wednesday and said he saw no cause for alarm. All of the firefighters pictured appeared to be properly outfitted for the task at hand, and none was fighting an active fire, he said. Thomas said he doesn't see a safety issue with loose suspenders as long as a firefighter's pants stay up.
Jay Lowry is a former Charleston firefighter and former city fire marshal. He left the department in 2000 for health reasons and is now a contributor to national firefighting journals and a member of national fire safety committees. Lowry also writes an Internet blog that covers the fire service and has been critical of the department's handling of the sofa store fire.
Lowry said he doesn't fault the department's rank-and-file firefighters because they are merely acting on their training and following orders. But he said the department's leadership has always had a cavalier attitude toward safety.
"When I was with the city, there were numerous times when firefighters, including myself, were not fully protected. It was our responsibility to wear it, but it's the chief officers' responsibility to enforce it," Lowry said. "The attitude was: This is the way we've done it since 1886. There was no pulling back and going back to get equipment because you would lose status among your peers."
Charleston is not alone. Repeated national firefighter fatality and injury studies have shown that fire departments across the country fail to follow safety mandates and recommendations. This stems from the profession's aggressive mentality and a strong adherence to tradition, fire safety experts said.
Lax safety at the sofa store fire?
Many firefighters on the scene of the sofa store fire were dressed in full gear, highlighting the fact that many others were not.
Off-duty firefighters scurried about the scene, carting hose and chipping in, while wearing shorts and T-shirts. A fire department employee, wearing nothing but a short-sleeve shirt and slacks, chopped a hole in the burning building while firefighters in full protective gear stood behind him with a hose. Another firefighter, wearing no jacket, gloves or air pack, climbed to the top of an aerial ladder truck while thick black smoke choked the air around him.
Paul Grimwood served more than 35 years with fire departments in London and New York and now writes books and journal articles on firefighting tactics. Like several experts who viewed photos from the sofa store fire, Grimwood said he was most troubled by the fact that department chiefs, identifiable by their white helmets, are among those without full protective gear.
"The few images I have seen suggest that several chiefs were complacent in their dressing of (protective equipment)," he said. "This does not set a good example to the firefighters or company commanders they oversee, and it certainly doesn't present a professional image to the public. I think it is a leadership issue."
Photos and videos from the sofa store blaze show the fire chief in various levels of protective dress. Thomas wears his protective coat open, suspenders hanging down, as he stands near the front door of the flaming store. Later, when the fire has been knocked down, he can be seen in a T-shirt.
Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin, who acted as an initial incident commander and entered the sofa store three times, wears street pants, no air pack and no gloves in photos.
Thomas said department rules required that anyone entering the burning building to fight fire be fully dressed in protective gear. But he said supervisors and firefighters outside the building didn't need that same level of protection. They were not as close to the flames and the billowing smoke was drifting up and away from them, he said.
Thomas said he didn't have a problem with off-duty firefighters pulling hose, pumping water or assisting with other ancillary tasks while wearing civilian clothes. "But they could not fight fire if they didn't have on protection."
Jeffrey Stull is president of International Personnel Protection in Austin, Texas, which advises the National Fire Protection Association on standards for protective equipment. He said firefighting gear is designed to work together as a shield, and any missing piece exposes firefighters to greater harm from smoke and heat.
Stull, who also takes part in federal firefighter fatality investigations to determine how protective equipment functioned, said firefighters sometimes fail to wear all of their gear because they think it hinders them.
But there's no excuse for not wearing gear, and it's up to department leaders to instill a culture of safety in the ranks and to lead by example, Stull said. He said he was commenting only on fire safety measures as a rule, not the Sofa Super Store fire.
Rich Duffy, a health and safety expert for the International Association of Fire Fighters, said he is concerned about the lack of air packs on the scene of the sofa store fire, which emitted a thick black cloud of dangerous gases from hundreds of pieces of burning furniture.
Burning sofas emit dangerous fumes because they contain polyurethane foam, a highly combustible material that some fire protection experts liken to solid gasoline.
"It's highly toxic. It certainly requires a breathing apparatus," Duffy said. "There is no justification for not having one on."
Thomas said he believes his department acts in a safe manner. Over the years, the department has adopted new equipment and techniques to reduce risks, such as equipping each firefighter with walkie-talkies and emergency alert devices. He said he is prepared to enact safety recommendations that might result from investigations into the sofa store fire.
"If we can do something to make ourselves safer, we will do it," he said.
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