Fire union wants changes
The Post and Courier
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Chief Thomas says firefighting procedures are sound:
Roger L. Yow, president of the Charleston Firefighters Association, speaks during a news conference Wednesday. In back is Mike Parrotta, president of the S.C. Professional Firefighters Association.
The head of the local union that represents nearly half of Charleston's firefighters says the department's operating rules are inadequate and need to change.
Roger L. Yow, president of the Charleston Firefighters Association and a former captain with 25 years of service in the department, called on Chief Rusty Thomas to improve safety standards for the department's firefighters, which he said are at odds with nationally prescribed guidelines.
The union represented three of the nine firefighters killed in last week's furniture store blaze.
Thomas said in a separate interview with The Post and Courier on Wednesday that his department follows policies and procedures that have been honed over generations and suit the city well. "Our firefighting techniques are not going to change in the city of Charleston Fire Department," he said.
Local members of the International Association of Fire Firefighters talk about last week's incident at a press conference
Yow said he called a news conference Wednesday because he wants something positive to come from the firefighters' deaths. He said he does not fault the fallen firefighters because they were following the department's policies.
"I remained on the scene until all of our brothers were recovered," he said, "and I promised our members that I would not talk to any media until our last hero was laid to rest. I made another promise. That promise is, we will find a way to make some good come from their selfless sacrifice to our community."
Yow was joined by Michael A. Parrotta, president of the South Carolina Professional Firefighters Association, and Larry Osborne, a vice president with the International Association of Fire Fighters. In a later interview with The Post and Courier, Yow said he felt a sense of urgency to speak out as soon as it was appropriate because "the next big fire could happen tonight. These things should have been changed a long time ago. This is the time to start."
The union officials said the procedures in need of improvement deal with incident command structure, pre-planning for structures with known fire hazards and procedures for deciding when to fight a fire offensively or defensively.
Thomas has said that his department policy states that the highest ranking officer is automatically in charge of a fire scene and that the officer can engage in firefighting and rescue operations. But federal guidelines recommend that incident commanders remain outside of burning structures and that the passage of command be handed off formally so that the incoming commander can be briefed on overall conditions and the whereabouts of all firefighters.
Thomas said Wednesday that it's easy for outside critics to second-guess decisions. "But they weren't there, and I was," he said.
He said also that his firefighters know their jobs well and he trusts their experience. "We're safe, we've got the best equipment, we've got the best people and that's the way we fight fires," he said.
Osborne said that from what he has learned about what happened after the blaze started, "there are things on the fire ground that I wish had been done differently. ... It doesn't look like incident command was quite in place."
Osborne said whoever is in charge needs to "size up" the building, the fire and the various firefighting teams to coordinate how to conduct the operation. The on-scene commander needs section commanders relaying him information from the various parts of the fire operation, inside and out.
Parrotta said generally accepted firefighting rules say firefighters should never go into a building without first checking inside a dropped ceiling to see if a fire is burning, hidden in the ceiling. "You poke a tile" to look up inside before sending firefighters under ceilings with concealed areas, such as the steel truss support of the Sofa Super Store's showroom, he said. Such ceilings are notorious for concealing potentially dangerous fires until it's too late for firefighters to evacuate.
The state association will press for changes to state law, Parrotta said. He said South Carolina is one of the only states in the nation that does not require two firefighters on rescue standby for every two firefighters that enter a burning building.
The state requires only one firefighter for every two inside. He said the state also should require state-level certification for all firefighters. The state offers training at the state fire academy, but firefighters are not required to be certified.
He said the association also will lobby for a stricter sprinkler law. "The single largest thing that would have made a difference is sprinklers," Osborne said.
The building has a "very high fire load," he said. The Sofa Super Store has been remodeled so many times and so much combustible material, such as sofas and other furniture, has been stored in the building that sprinklers should have been required, he said.
The international association is the world's largest trade union of professional firefighters, representing more than 280,000 firefighters and emergency medical personnel. The union's state-level organization is the South Carolina Professional Firefighters Association, which represents about 735 firefighters around the state.
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Three of the fallen firefighters, Engineer Brad Baity, Capt. Mike Benke and Firefighter James "Earl" Drayton, belonged to the local union, Yow said. He added that the more than 100 union members with the city department "support me 100 percent."
Parrotta, who spent 25 years fighting fires with departments in the Myrtle Beach area, first raised questions last week about whether the department followed proper firefighting procedure and incident command structure at the furniture store fire. He said life-saving policies are already in place at many departments. They just need to be implemented everywhere. "We don't need to reinvent the wheel," he said. "The wheel is already out there."
Yow said he expects the department's culture of aggressive fire fighting could make it difficult to institute new rules. "The Charleston Fire department has a long history of tradition and doesn't accept change well."
Glenn Smith contributed to this report.