A few years ago, a supporter of one of Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr.’s largely forgettable challengers challenged my support of Little Joe.
I cited Riley’s devotion to the welfare of the city before, during, and after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. I had never seen anyone work as hard as he did, and this city is better for it.
That doesn’t mean my loyalty is blind, which brings up my current frustration with Hizzoner and the aftermath of the Sofa Super Store tragedy.
Last week, Riley angrily blasted the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officials for comments made in a Post and Courier article asserting that Charleston Fire Department polyester uniforms were in noncompliance with state regulations.
Uniforms? Is he kidding?
Riley sent a letter to state OSHA administrator Dottie Ison last Tuesday saying that the city was acting on a 2003 OSHA assurance that the polyester uniforms were sufficient for use and that the noncompliance declaration came only in the wake of the June 18 fire.
OSHA, according to the mayor, was engaging in “revisionism at its worst.”
Also in his letter, Riley stated, “It is imperative that an atmosphere of trust and credibility permeate OSHA’s relationship with employers. The inconsistent actions of your agency are deeply troubling as they are irreconcilable.”
State OSHA spokesman Jim Knight had no comment at press time and said Riley’s letter was being evaluated.
Riley says that state OSHA officials told the city in 2003 that the polyester uniforms did not present a safety hazard because the department required that firefighters wear protective equipment over the polyester uniforms.
Well, just roll the videotape of the fire and see how well that regulation was followed by the firemen, including Chief Russell “Rusty” Thomas.
What about “polyester” and “fire” sounded like a good mix to whoever bought the uniforms is what I’d like to know. Helen Keller could see this was a lousy idea.
Now, I don’t have a problem with the mayor’s claims, but it seems to me that quibbling over who is correct in a pissing contest with state government over the fabric used in city-provided uniforms is not the best way to address the core problems that resulted in such a heartbreaking loss of life.
And neither would be attacking those who think the investigation into the fire has enough sunshine and/or expertise.
Last Thursday, Jeff Zack of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) let it be known that the union had asked for federal oversight of the state investigation of the blaze.
Zack cited the chief investigator’s inexperience with fatal fires and a lack of confidentiality for firefighters interviewed following the deaths of their colleagues.
“How in the heck can he investigate a fire in which nine guys were killed?” said Zack.
Zack also questioned the wisdom of the same investigator allowing Battallion Chief Ricky Shriver to sit in on several interviews, saying it was “pure intimidation.”
Zack asserted that Shriver’s presence served only as a conduit straight back to the office of Rusty Thomas and thus discouraged interviewees from speaking, “You can’t ask a firefighter to put his career on the line like that, not when he has no protections in that fire department.”
Let me remind everyone out there that South Carolina is a “right-to-work” state (one of the greatest misnomers of all time) and only about half of the department belongs to the union.
Regarding Thomas’ administration of the CFD, Zack said Rusty should be held accountable for “dereliction of duty and negligence” for fighting fires the old-fashioned way and not employing established safety measures.
According to Zack, “It’s not right that a guy can be oblivious to firefighting safety standards and procedures and still be running a major fire department in a major city.”
Predictably, Mayor Riley got angry and said to the P&C, “Chief Thomas is first-rate and he’s a great fire chief and a great leader. He has my full support and I am very proud of him.”
That’s just great, Joe, but this city doesn’t need another demonstration of your capacity for blind loyalty to an employee that has outlived his usefulness.
Anybody remember Danny Molony? You can write him at The Big House.
What about former Charleston Police Department Chief Reuben Greenberg? There’s more stories about him than Carter has liver pills.
I appreciate Riley’s devotion to his subordinates, but the simple fact remains that Rusty Thomas was in charge when events spiraled horribly out of control.
So while the chief may have the mayor’s support, I’ve got nine reasons with names on them why Rusty has to go. Period.
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