With the burials behind us and tons of unanswered questions left in the nebula of state and federal investigations, attention regarding the June 18 fire at the Sofa Super Store has turned to what could have been done differently, with criticism coming from local firefighters, union members, and department veterans, all while Mayor Joe Riley pledges to stand by his fireman, Chief Rusty Thomas.
Everyone is hesitant to suggest anything could have been done to save the lives of the nine firefighters lost in the blaze. But there’s a wealth of criticism on what could have protected the building, including a firewall between structures and sprinklers inside the building. One of the most emotional moments at a press conference following the blaze occurred when a local reporter asked about the lack of sprinklers. Thomas noted that sprinklers would have helped contain the fire, but when asked if it would have saved lives, the chief held back tears, unable to answer.
But firefighters and others are also questioning the process of fighting the fire, including the city’s operating procedures and whether the building’s steel trusses, known to be a hazard, should have been of greater concern. Firefighting blogs like STATter 911 and Firegeezer have started to question things seen in the vast video and photo footage from the blaze. Local firefighters started a blog last Tuesday called Charleston Fire Review and made three posts before shutting the site down a day later over fears of retribution.
During a press conference June 27, union officials called on the department to implement nationally-recommended standards on command operations at fire sites. Local policy allows the officer in charge to actively battle the blaze, but recommended incident command protocols leave him/her outside to coordinate the site.
“We will find a way to make some good come from their selfless sacrifice,” said local union representative Richard Yow when calling for the changes.
Thomas’ first response to the recommendations was that changes aren’t coming.
“Our firefighting techniques are not going to change in the city of Charleston Fire Department,” he told the Post and Courier. “We’re safe, we’ve got the best equipment, we’ve got the best people, and that’s the way we fight fires.”
It was an odd response considering a very hush-hush investigation is ongoing and Riley had said several times since the fire that lessons would be learned. Considering nine guys walked into the fire and didn’t come out, there must be something that could protect our firefighters next time.
Come Thursday, the chief, with the mayor standing beside him, had changed his tune — a little.
“If we had to do it again, our guys would do it the same way,” the chief said, but if the fire investigation shows tweaks are necessary, they’ll be implemented. “If we can make improvements to make our department better, that’s what we’ll do.”
Thomas noted that he hasn’t been against change in the past, pointing to lessons he’s learned from 9/11 and elsewhere regarding firefighter protection and communication. But with an incident command procedure he considers a model for other departments, the recommended changes aren’t likely to come without arm twisting and the aid of an agency with a little more clout.
Mayor Riley, who has hardly let an opportunity in front of a podium pass without praising Thomas, once again said last week that his support is behind the chief 100 percent.
“I’ve never seen a better example of leadership than Chief Thomas that night,” he said. “We’ve got the best chief and the best department.”
Some have called the criticism “armchair quarterbacking.” The question isn’t what could have been done to prevent loss yesterday. All eyes should be on how to prevent it from happening again