Two years after Charleston Nine tragedy | Features | Charleston City Paper

Two years after Charleston Nine tragedy 

Fire response getting makeover under new leadership

Marking the Anniversary

A quiet, reflective memorial event is planned this year in remembrance of the nine Charleston firefighters lost in the Sofa Super Store blaze in June 2007. Family members and firefighters will have a private memorial on June 18 at the site on Savannah Highway prior to a public memorial at 7 p.m. Fire Chief Thomas Carr will read the names of the fallen and individual plaques will be placed where the men were found.

Department Rolls Out New Operating Procedure

One year after the Sofa Super Store blaze killed nine Charleston firefighters, there was plenty of evidence the department had changed. Early investigations into the June 2007 tragedy had led the department to increase staff, implement training, improve equipment, and add new technology.

But it's only after looking back on this second year that another promise has borne fruit: the once seemingly cavalier and aggressive firefighting culture has undergone a top-to-bottom review. Earlier this month, the department began implementing a new operating procedure that's designed to provide what the Charleston Nine tragedy proved was severely lacking: a clear, consistent response.

Most of the operational changes have been shepherded by Fire Chief Thomas Carr, who was hired in late September after the resignation last May of longtime chief Rusty Thomas, who struggled against heavy criticism in the year following the sofa store fire. Carr came from a large Maryland department and pledged to bring Charleston up to national standards. To do that, he looked to the commanders and firefighters in the field.

"We put together a group to take apart what we were doing, look at what is happening nationally, and put it back together," Carr says.

One part of that is a methodical response to the madness of a fire scene.

"We've scripted the first 10 minutes, those initial, most critical first moments," Carr says. "Absent other direction from the incident commander, everyone knows what to do every time and it's the same every time. ... Everyone will know what to do."

The department is also embracing regional cooperation with North Charleston, St. Andrews, and others.

"Charleston has typically been an island unto itself," Carr says. "Now we're more focused on working with all the available resources."

Carr also sought input from neighboring fire departments regarding the new operating procedure and codified an understanding about sharing resources.

"When a call comes in for a building fire, the five closest units go automatically, regardless of what the patch says on the side of the truck," Carr says.

Engine numbers across the region have also been modified so that Charleston's "Engine 11" and St. Andrew's "Engine 11" don't get mixed up at a frantic fire scene.

The importance of the in-depth investigation of the sofa store fire hasn't been lost. The Charleston department is implementing several different levels of critique for a fire response. Commanders at the scene routinely check in with the team at the end of a fire call to discuss what went right and wrong, and there's another review when the troops get together for the next shift.

For more complicated incidents — when something unusual happens — the department will have an outside commander not involved in that particular fire response write up a report. The more complicated the fire, the more detailed the report.

"We need to let people know what happened," Carr says. "They may be able to learn before it happens to them in another situation."

There are other changes too, Carr says. Ladder trucks that didn't have a specific responsibility in the past now have designated roles at a fire scene. The department also plans to continue modifying and improving its equipment.

Staffing got a major shot in the arm earlier this spring with a federal grant for 30 new firefighters. That new staff is currently in a 16-week training program that will include certification as emergency medical technicians — a first for the Charleston department.

"The majority of our calls are medical calls," Carr says. "We need to meet a standard that provides the best service we can."

The department is also bringing on a new deputy chief of operations. John Tippet is a national expert in fire safety and training and developed a national anonymous reporting system for mistakes at fire scenes similar to the near-miss program for airplane pilots.

Once he gets settled into the captain's chair, Carr says that he'd like to take a leadership role in changing state and federal fire safety and regulatory standards.

"I think fire chiefs have a responsibility to do that," he says. "There are a lot of things we can influence."

Remembering the Fallen

A brief reading of the Gettysburg Address preceded every meeting of the commission tasked with finding a purpose for the Sofa Super Store site. The City of Charleston bought the 2.5-acre property for $1.85 million last year with only a vague idea of how to memorialize the nine firefighters lost in the store's charred remains in a June 2007 blaze.

Led by local entrepreneur Jimmy Bailey, commission meetings began with the famous address, including the lines, "In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."

Last month, the commission presented its preliminary proposal for the site (represented on right), including a building fronting Savannah Highway that would isolate a memorial garden from the busy roadway. The spots where the fallen firefighters were found will be marked and a memorial will likely be placed at the center of the garden. The building could be used for several purposes, including offices or training for the fire department.

The Fire In Court

Two separate efforts are making their way through the local court system regarding the Sofa Super Store tragedy. After receiving Charleston Police Department findings in December, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson is waiting on one more report before making a decision on any criminal charges.

That delay has held up a civil case brought by most of the families of the nine victims, says lead attorney Kevin Dean of Motley Rice. It will likely be early next year before the case is brought to trial. Defendants include the store owner, various contractors, furniture manufacturers, and others.

Twelve defendants have settled outside of court, Dean says. There are 14 remaining defendants, but more may be brought on as the picture becomes clearer regarding what happened and who is responsible.

"The complexity of this case is the equivalent of putting together a 1,000 piece puzzle without having the picture on the box," Dean says.

Also read: Sofa store anniverasry prompts inspection drive


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