Charleston Fire Department protection rating 

We're No. 1*: What a Class 1 rating doesn't say about Charleston's fire department

* With more than a dozen "immediate" recommended changes

A national team of firefighting experts took less than a week to come up with more than a dozen "immediate" recommendations deemed so pressing they couldn't wait a month to be implemented. Most mirrored concerns raised since the June 18 Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine of Charleston's firefighters.

Several of the items in the task force recommendations aren't innovative techniques but rather nationally-accepted standards Charleston has failed to incorporate over the years. If we were a community known for an antiquated response to fighting fires, the news would come as no surprise. But many times in the months since the fire, and for years before it, the city has stressed its Class 1 ISO rating. A city press release on the day following the fire notes that it's "the highest ranking available nationwide."

"While the ISO rating evaluates the city's fire protection, it's not necessarily a measure of the fire department," says Pete Piringer, the task force spokesman and a public information officer for Montgomery County, Md.

Mayor Joe Riley suggested Friday that other measures may be used to help move the department in line with national standards.

The rating, determined by risk-management firm ISO, is intended to rate a community's fire preparedness for insurance companies. Half of ISO's evaluation is based on the fire department and the other half is on water supply and fire detectors.

It's considered an insurance industry standard nationwide, though some states do their own fire response reviews. In general, a lower number means your fire insurance will cost less, so it doesn't get any better than a Class 1.

ISO is in talks with the city regarding the rating, looking beyond any specific outcomes of the fire investigation.

The ISO rating accounts for a number of things, including engine response, the type of hoses used, and communications — all points in the task force's recommendations.

Rick Vance, an ISO manager, says the organization will consider the task force review in its own analysis, but "we really don't make any decisions until we get our boots on the ground."

Aside from the mayor's comments, the city touts its Class 1 rating on the fire trucks and on firefighter badges. While ISO is proud that the city is proud of its rating, Risk Detection manager Rick Vance says the ISO doesn't make recommendations in regards to promoting the rating to residents.

Richard Duffy, head of health and safety for the International Association of Fire Fighters, says the rating provides a false sense of security for residents and is far from the gold standard that the city has purported it to be.

"It's not even a paper standard," he says. The task force's recommended changes include establishing new assistant chief positions along with a department safety officer and maintaining at least three firefighters per engine or ladder company with a plan to move to four in the next two years. The team suggested the city apply nationally-recognized command procedures at fire scenes and that it reinforce standard training, safety, and equipment procedures.

Chief Rusty Thomas balked at early criticism of the fire department's response at the sofa store, saying the department would change nothing. But he has since changed his tune, eagerly welcoming suggestions. The city has already begun implementing some of the task force recommendations, but there's no measure for determining if the city will continue to seek out national best practices.

The task force's more thorough recommendations this fall will include some form of national accreditation, Piringer says, possibly including the Center for Public Safety Excellence program.

The accreditation can take four or five years and only about 120 departments nationwide have achieved it. But with mandatory self-assessments and peer evaluations, it would make it difficult for Charleston to fall behind again.

Mayor Riley says the city is looking forward to the task force recommendations in late September.

"It is our goal to achieve or to exceed national standards in the interest of the safety of the public and our firefighters."

* With more than a dozen "immediate" recommended changes

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