Charleston, SC (September 21, 2007) -- South Carolina OSHA didn't waste any time issuing its report on the June 18th Sofa Store fire in which nine Charleston Firefighters lost their lives. The summary, which was issued by the agency earlier today, cites the City of Charleston Fire Department with willful and serious violations that led to the death the firefighters.
In the notice of citation and penalty, there are four separate violations beginning with the "willful violation." SC OSHA reports that the CFD "...knew or should have known that the command system does not provide for the overall safety of emergency personnel and their activities."
The report adds three serious violations which include, no operating procedure for fighting a fire in a trussed roof building; that body protection was not required to be worn by the nine dead firemen; and that self contained breathing apparatus was not required to be worn at all times by four firemen who were exposed to smoke and toxic substances.
The total fine levied against the CFD is less than $10,000. But according to firefighter safety advocate, Chief Billy Goldfeder, "The fine dollar amount isn't really the issue at this point." He continues, "The fact that they (the department) were found in violation and those violations directly contributed to the Line of Duty Deaths of nine CFD Firefighters is the issue."
The citations, especially the willful violation, have rocked the firefighting world. In South Carolina, response from professional firefighters was quick. Michael Parrotta of the South Carolina Professional Firefighters Association says firefighters have lost faith in Chief Rusty Thomas, and called for his immediate resignation.
Just one day after the blaze, many firefighters urged that Thomas be suspended. But Charleston mayor, Joe Riley, has noted on several occasions that as long as he's mayor, Thomas will remain the city's fire chief. But TV journalist Sarah DeMarco notes in a recent report, "Some say if that's the case, then maybe it's also time for Riley to find a new job."
"The new report is a clarion call for change." says Charleston Firefighters Association Local 61 President Roger Yow.
"It's no longer just fire fighters who claim the Charleston Fire Department is run in an unsafe manner," Yow notes. "Now state officials also are condemning Chief Thomas's failed leadership."
Mayor Riley says the city will vigorously challenge citations for the safety violations issued by SC OSHA. He feels that the state agency "...has wrongly punished the city.
The sofa store fire that claimed the Charleston Nine is the worst on-the-job loss for the North American fire service since the events of 9/11/01, and the story is being followed closely by fire-rescue agencies around the world.
SC OSHA's report is a wake up call for the fire service and has national ramifications. It sends a message to mayors, county executives and fire department board members, nationwide, to choose their leaders based on skill - not popularity.
During the past generation the fire service here in America has seen more change than it did during its first 300 years. In my mind it was just a matter of time before an incident, like the sofa fire in Charleston, took place. Quite possibly it could have occurred in some other American city, because CFD isn't the only fire rescue agency that still operates in the past.
Chief Rusty Thomas' choice to ignore firefighting procedures that have been universally accepted is clearly a disregard for the men and women who serve under him. It's time for Thomas to step down, and allow the Charleston Fire Department to be rebuilt. It's the best scenario for the citizens of one of America's most beautiful cities - one that will allow Charleston firefighters to demonstrate their true skills and potential.
Resources for this commentary:
(1) SC OSHA Report http://media.charleston.net/pdf/OSHAreport.pdf
(2) News 4 Charleston
(3) The Secret List
(4) Photos by: Tyronne Walker (used by permission)