Equipment Issues Cited In Charleston Sofa Store Fatalities

Now that two investigative reports have been released about the nine Charleston firefighters who lost their lives at a sofa store on June 18, 2007, many questions have been answered. However, a few more questions have been raised.

The two reports are the Phase II Firefighter Fatality Investigative Report requested by the City of Charleston and the preliminary National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) line-of-duty death investigative report. Aside from major incident management shortcomings, one of the more striking observations from the reports is how the department was equipped and how it used its equipment.

One question worthy of raising for discussion is: Did the Insurance Services Office (ISO) Class 1 rating of Charleston lull the fire department and the community into a false sense of security and competency?

As with any department that is recognized by an outside agency for excellence, the Charleston Fire Department was very proud of its ISO Class 1 rating. It was a symbol of the department. One cannot visit the department without seeing the rating proudly displayed. Yet, how could an ISO Class 1-rated department have nine firefighters lose their lives at one fire? And, the sofa store burned to the ground, despite the fire being fairly small when the first engines arrived on the scene.

Let’s cut to the chase – should the ISO Fire Suppression Rating Schedule be totally revamped or should it go away? The Charleston incident makes one wonder about its value.

Now, let’s ask a larger question. What does it say about the insurance industry that uses the ISO rating system to determine fire insurance rates? Not much. Clearly a fire department’s effectiveness may not be related to its ISO rating.

There have been attempts by some in the fire service to encourage ISO to update its rating system, including the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) technical committee on apparatus. ISO has shown little or no interest in that suggestion until recently. As a result, a few states have moved away from ISO and started their own rating systems. And State Farm Insurance has abandoned the rating schedule altogether in favor of a system based on past losses for a particular area. Several metropolitan cities’ insurance rates have been based on past experience for years.

The first fire department to get a Class 1 rating was Los Angeles City in 1947. However, after 50 years of maintaining this rating, LAFD Public Information Officer Brian Humphrey has said in an Internet forum: “The world is a dynamic place, and nowhere is that more apparent than America’s Fire Service. In order to appear in ISO’s rating schedule, an agency must be evaluated. After more than a half-century at the top of ISO’s roster, the LAFD has chosen not to seek formal and costly re-evaluation. As such, the Los Angeles Fire Department has not appeared on ISO’s recently released rosters of fire departments that have an ISO Class 1 Public Protection Classification (PPC). It has nothing to do with a ‘failure’ of our agency.”

Obsolete Equipment

Back to Charleston, one of the findings in the “Analysis of Fire Department Operations” in the Phase II Firefighter Fatality Investigative Report was: “Insufficient training, inadequate staffing, obsolete equipment and outdated tactics all contributed to an ineffective effort to control the fire with offensive tactics during the early stages of the incident.”

Let’s examine the equipment and apparatus as of June 18, 2007, in the Charleston Fire Department. The apparatus was configured much like apparatus in the 1960s, though the fleet was not particularly old. Each pumper contained two booster reels, each with one-inch hose with typical flows of 30 gpm each. How many years has it been since you have seen that configuration on a new pumper?

Contrary to national practice, booster lines were usually the first lines deployed on a working structure fire in Charleston, with 1.5-inch lines as an option. And this is an ISO Class 1-rated city? Most departments figured out years ago that a 1.75-inch or two-inch line is much more effective and safer. It must be pointed out that the majority of apparatus built in recent years have no booster reels at all. Charleston’s pumpers did have two 1.5-inch pre-connects off the rear of the apparatus, but they were seldom the first lines deployed. Each of the lines had an adjustable flow nozzle set at 60 gpm, which is half of what most departments use on initial attack.

No Large Diameter Hose

Equally astonishing as the use of two booster reels was the deployment of 2.5-inch hose for supply lines. Each pumper had approximately 1,500 feet of 2.5-inch hose. There was no large diameter hose (LDH), which has been the norm in this country for over 20 years. Their answer for more water was more pressure.

In the radio traffic from the sofa store fire, the chief is repeatedly heard asking for more pressure. It’s almost impossible to believe, but Engine 16 supplied water to Engine 11 through 1,750 feet of 2.5-inch hose and 100 feet of three-inch hose. Charleston’s standard operating procedure (SOP) was for the second-in pumper to reverse lay to the hydrant. Both Engine 11 and Engine 10 suffered problems with pump cavitations because of the small supply lines. Only the 2.5-inch intakes had gated valves. The master intakes were without valves and were simply equipped with caps, but the department had an ISO Class 1 rating.

The Charleston Fire Department has three ladder trucks to go with its 16 engines. That’s three ladder trucks for 110 square miles and a population of 106,000. Vertical ventilation was rarely if ever attempted. None of the ladder trucks had pumps. Ladder trucks without pumps might be adequate in areas where there is a high density of apparatus to cover a geographic area, but they are questionable in other circumstances. Ladder trucks with tanks and pumps – quints – are common in the Southeast. As noted in the report, the department did not do “ladder work” or “truck work” as is typical in most departments. One observer stated that the only reason there were ladders in the system was because they were required for the ISO Class 1 rating.

Engine 11 – The Exception

Despite its antiquated configuration, the department took great pride in its apparatus, and overall they were fairly well maintained. A notable exception was Engine 11, which is described later. The fire chief and his three mechanics wrote the specifications for the department’s apparatus. There was no involvement from firefighters, the union, the drivers and the training or safety officers. The result of this lack involvement led to 1960s configurations.

This approach is underscored by the fact that the department’s apparatus cabs were not air-conditioned. Do you think the chief rode around in a vehicle without air-conditioning? Do you think the mechanics saw a need for air-conditioning? Keep in mind that Charleston is a southern coastal town with very warm temperatures and very high humidity. In an interview, the chief stated that of the changes since the sofa store fire, the most difficult of all for him to adjust to was the formation of a cross-section committee to develop apparatus specifications.

An interesting observation about apparatus maintenance involved Engine 11, the second engine to arrive on the scene. The pumper had a history of being “notoriously touchy” and required experienced operators to properly engage the pump. On the day of the fire, Engine 11’s engineer was acting as the company officer and a firefighter was the acting engineer, and he was not familiar with the nuances of the pumper. There was considerable delay in getting a water supply established during the critical moments of the fire because of Engine 11’s known peculiarities.

PPE Perplexing

Why had this not been fixed? It appears that these maintenance issues reflected other issues within the department. Instead of solving a problem, they just hoped that everyone knew how to work around it. This is not a good practice in emergency service operations.

The personal protective equipment within the department was also perplexing. For example, though there was a single brand of self-contained breathing apparatus, there were various models of the brand in service. Some of the units had mask-mounted regulators, and some had belt-mounted regulators. Some of the units had heads-up displays, and some did not. None of the units had integrated personal alert safety system (PASS) devices. Firefighters were not fit-tested nor issued their own individual masks. The department had a standard operating procedure that its 2,216-psi cylinders did not need to be topped off until they dropped below 1,500 psi. What does this do for air management consistency in a team environment? It’s no wonder that freelancing was the norm.

Buying Their Own Gear

The firefighters were issued minimum NFPA standard turnout gear. The chiefs were issued turnout gear that far exceeded NFPA standards though they rarely engaged in interior operations. It is also interesting to note there were only minimal training records for the chief officers.

Two of the firefighters who were killed were wearing PPE that was not issued by the department. It is unclear whether they purchased it with their own money or if it actually belonged to another department where they were volunteers. The department issued black turnout gear. Black is not necessarily the best color for hot, humid climates. Some of the firefighters had purchased their own leather boots rather than wear the department-issued rubber boots. Some of the firefighters opted to purchase their own helmets rather than wear those issued by the department. The NIOSH report also states the department does not issue protective hoods. There was no PPE maintenance program other than with SCBA.

Cheap Hand Lights

Here is an action item for all departments: Carefully review and understand the latest revision of the NFPA 1851 Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting and start to understand the complexities of a comprehensive PPE program.

The Charleston reports raised other equipment issues of note.

The master stream appliances were kept in compartments. Only one engine (purchased as a demo) had a pre-piped waterway for a master stream appliance.

The department was not equipped with rugged hand lights designed for fire service use. They purchased very cheap hand lights typically found at Wal-Mart. Several firefighters actually purchased their own hand lights so they could adequately perform their duties. ISO requires four hand lights per apparatus. It does not, however, address hand light durability or serviceability.

The three ladder companies and one battalion chief had thermal imagers, but they were rarely, if ever, used.

The department did not have robust saws designed for fire service use. Crews were forced to use axes to cut through metal siding because their saws did not have the proper blades and several of the air filters became clogged.

The ISO rating schedule requires that the equipment on its lists be suitable for the job. The smaller departments adjoining the Charleston Fire Department seem to be much better equipped. Yet they do not have an ISO Class 1 rating. What’s wrong with this picture?

Getting Out Of The Shadow

The Phase II report stated that the Charleston Fire Department should continually research, adopt and employ technological advances to improve firefighter safety and fire suppression effectiveness. It stressed firefighter involvement in researching and adopting these advances. Suggested advancing technologies included: thermal imagers, improved communications equipment, firefighter accountability and tracking systems, pre-fire planning and information management systems, and positive pressure ventilation equipment and techniques.

To avoid the trappings instilled in the Charleston Fire Department, it is essential that firefighters get out of the shadow of their own department. The knowledge gained by attending regional, state and national conferences and symposiums will keep you abreast of industry practices and trends. However, do not let them become or be perceived as junkets.

Change Agents

Report what you learn to your bosses, your peers and your subordinates. Establish a network of peers in other “forward-thinking” fire departments. Take time to learn who the “change agents” are in this industry. Seek them out. Listen to their presentations. Read their written materials. Listen to their podcasts or whatever means they use to communicate. The change agents are typically speakers at national and regional seminars.

Opportunities abound to stay abreast of a changing industry. The Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis is the largest conference and is typically held in late winter or early spring.

The second largest conference is the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Fire Rescue International (FRI) show usually held in late summer. The Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) has an excellent apparatus and maintenance symposium in Orlando each winter.

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Redmond Symposium held every other year is a premier health and safety event for its members. Known for its annual Fire Station Design Symposium, the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.), in conjunction with the Fire Service Section of NFPA, is starting an annual PPE symposium next March. The Phoenix Fire Department is known for its annual health and wellness and its incident management symposiums. Other private sector organizations also provide excellent conferences and expositions.

Meanwhile, ISO is re-assessing its Class 1 rating of the Charleston Fire Department. The department has all new PPE, including SCBA, all new LDH, more staffing, improved training, improved SOPs, and lots of other new resources, clearly making it a much better department than it was on June 18, 2007. New thermal imagers will soon be placed on all apparatus.

ISO’s Point System

Would it not be ironic if ISO changes its rating after the department has made obvious improvements?

One more salvo: What kind of rating system gives 100 points for an annual pump test, 50 points for annual hose tests, 50 points for annual ladder tests, but no points for annual firefighter physical examinations and no points for a PPE maintenance program?

In that same light, what kind of rating system considers training aids such as a “slide or overhead projector,” but fails to require any training on incident management?

The Burst Hose Jacket

Here’s the perfect example of how out-of-touch the ISO Fire Suppression Rating System really is: It still offers four points for a 2.5-inch burst hose jacket. Is there a fire department anywhere that has ever used one on a fire scene?

If ISO is the measure of a department, why did the IAFC start an accreditation agency? That’s not to say accreditation is the whole answer, because it’s not. It is also interesting to note that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Assistance to Firefighter Grant Program does not use ISO requirements as criteria for awarding grants. Perhaps the time will come when there will be an independent agency that properly assesses the effectiveness of a department. Until that time comes, our best bet is to measure ourselves against the applicable NFPA standards.

Has ISO finally realized its shortcomings? Maybe. According to its Web site: “ISO is embarking on a project to review and, if warranted, update the content of the Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS). Our objective for this ‘Draft Concept FSRS 2009’ project is to identify portions of the current PPC [Public Protection Classification] evaluation worthy of potential revision.”

Over the next few months, ISO representatives want to talk with a variety of stakeholders in organizations that deal with water, fire, and emergency communications. They are seeking feedback on the scope and feasibility of the possible revision.

They have even gone so far as to offer a draft outline of items under consideration for revision. (See related story)

It is interesting to note ISO’s heavy reliance on NFPA standards for its possible revisions. NFPA standards are comprehensive, and compliance probably is the best measure of a fire department’s effectiveness. However, compliance with NFPA is voluntary.

It will be a great day when the insurance industry recognizes the importance of compliance with NFPA and rewards the departments that adhere to the standards and the communities that financially support those departments. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that day to come, but it is an interesting thought.

Serious Revisions Needed

The ISO revision is just in the discussion stage. ISO says it will revise its schedule “if warranted.” It sounds like there may still be some denial. If the Charleston sofa store fire does point up the need for serious revisions, I suspect nothing ever will.

Everyone in the fire service should read the Phase II Charleston report and the NIOSH report. As stated in the introduction of the Phase II report: “The ultimate objective of this analysis is to identify the lessons that may be learned from this incident, with the goal of reducing the risk of future occurrences of a similar nature.”

The introduction also states that in addition to the City of Charleston and its fire department, the report is “intended to provide valuable information to a much larger audience of firefighters, public officials and other interested parties to help them understand the factors that contributed to the tragedy that occurred in Charleston and the lessons that should be taken from it.”

Learning From Mistakes

And all NIOSH reports from the Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program state: “The purpose of the program is to determine factors that cause or contribute to firefighter deaths suffered in the line of duty. Identification of causal and contributing factors enables researchers and safety specialists to develop strategies for preventing future similar incidents.”

We either learn from the mistakes of others or we are bound to repeat them.

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has 30 years in the fire service, is the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department health and safety officer. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Department Apparatus Committee and is on two other NFPA committees, the Structural and Proximity Firefighting Protective Ensemble Technical Committee and the Technical Correlating Committee for Fire and Emergency Services PPE.

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