Charleston department followed own policies in store fire

The Charleston City Fire Department has its own firefighting rules that conflict in some ways with safety rules adopted by federal and South Carolina fire safety agencies.

Fires in large buildings can create chaotic circumstances, and there's no way to know whether following the federal rules would have saved the lives of the nine firefighters killed Monday in the Sofa Super Store blaze.

Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin, who was in charge of the scene when firefighters entered the building, told The Post and Courier that he made his decisions in accordance with his department's training and procedures.

He said he entered the building with firefighters to search for fire. Federal rules call for the incident chief to maintain an overall command from outside the burning building.

Garvin said he walked through the store's showroom looking for fire but saw only a small puff of smoke near the ceiling tiles at the rear of the building. Federal rules say firefighters should make a careful search for hidden fire inside the ceiling area in such structures.

Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said Friday that he does not know whether his department's policies mirror federal and state guidelines for managing a fire scene.

"I don't know," he said. "I know we have our own."

Thomas said Garvin acted in accordance with departmental firefighting policy, which allows the fire scene commander to actively participate in fighting a fire. "He can get into the fire," Thomas said. He said doing so does not compromise his commander's ability.

Federal fire safety reports say incident commanders should not engage in firefighting or rescue operations, said Carl Peterson, director of the public fire protection division for the National Fire Protection Association. Peterson's division writes many of the fire safety rules on which federal guidelines are based. In South Carolina, state workplace safety rules are the same as the federal code.

"If you are actively involved in firefighting activity, then you are not monitoring the big picture," Peterson said.

When firefighters arrived at the sofa store Monday evening, they discovered flames outside the back of the main showroom. While one team of firefighters began fighting those flames, Garvin went with a team of firefighters inside the showroom through the front of the building.

Garvin told The Associated Press that he entered the store three times. He said he saw only a small amount of smoke near the ceiling, which he thought was wafting in from the fire outside the building. He said that when he went in the next two times, the conditions seemed to get worse.

Michael Parrotta, president of the South Carolina Professional Firefighters Association and a former firefighter in Myrtle Beach for more than 20 years, questioned why Garvin was in and out of the building and not positioned outside monitoring the fire's progress. "We need incident commanders on the outside. Him going in and out, that deters him from doing his job as the incident commander."

John Reich, acting state fire marshal, said the state does not inspect fire departments' operating procedures. The state assumes that departments are following guidelines prescribed in the National Incident Management System, or NIMS, Reich said.

Gov. Mark Sanford signed an executive order in 2005 ordering all fire departments to ensure that their internal incident command policies come in line with NIMS.

The federal guidelines lay out the duties of an incident commander, Reich said, describing the job as "the brains" on the scene of a fire.

Reich said that as a matter of practicality, incident command structure also is dependent on the size of the department.

Notorious roof structure

The city fire department's handling of a routine preplanning fire safety inspection of the Sofa Super Store on U.S. Highway 17 in April 2006 also conflicts with federal recommendations. In that review, Garvin and two other firefighters did not say in the report that the main showroom's roof was supported by a steel truss, which could have given the firefighters a warning.

The roof of the Sofa Super Store's main showroom, where six of the dead firefighters' bodies were found, was supported by a steel truss, a type of structure notorious among firefighters for concealing dangerous overhead fires and causing sudden roof collapse.

"Pre-incident planning assumes an incident will occur and is one of the most valuable tools available for aiding responding personnel in effectively controlling an emergency," according to recommendations by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

State and federal investigators are continuing to evaluate what happened at the Sofa Super Store and if the truss structure contained a hidden fire before it collapsed. The Charleston County coroner said autopsies showed that the firefighters died of burns and smoke inhalation. She said the men did not receive any serious injuries from the roof's collapse, but it may have been a factor in trapping them.

Thomas said Friday that he doesn't know if his men were aware that the store's roof was supported by a steel truss.

Federal safety alerts say firefighters need to exercise extreme caution when a fire is suspected in a structure with a steel truss roof. "The design of suspended ceiling panels provides a void to hide the fire and allow hot gases to accumulate which may flash when oxygen is introduced," according to the federal report.

Looking for the fire

Garvin said that in hindsight he wonders whether the fire might have already been burning, hidden above the ceiling tiles, when he first went into the building looking for flames.

After seeing the puff of smoke near the ceiling, Garvin opened the back door to a covered rear deck area, where investigators say the fire began. When he did that, the fire's force sucked the door from his grip and he was not able to close it. The fire immediately erupted toward him. He then ordered in two hose teams to fight the fire.

Thinking the teams were getting the blaze under control, he left them inside to go around to the back of the building, where he heard over his radio that a store worker was trapped inside another part of the building.

"When I went on the side of the building, (Thomas) was there, and once he got there, that relieves me of my command."

Federal incident command guidelines call for a formal passage of command, so that the arriving commander can be briefed on what's happening and so that firefighters know who's in charge.

Thomas said city firefighting rules do not require a verbal passing of command. "I'm just going to let you know we have our own incident command system. We have it written that the highest-ranking official is automatically in charge. I don't care how it is anyplace else."

He said a formal pass-off of responsibility is not required by the department because all of its firefighters know the internal policy.

It's not unusual for fire departments to skirt federal regulations. Chiefs at some area fire departments say their policies on an incident commander's duties vary according to the fire scene.

For the Isle of Palms Fire Department, there is generally a radio announcement when a senior officer takes command, said Chief Ann Graham. "But for some departments, it's just a known fact," Graham said.

When Sullivan's Island Fire Chief Anthony Stith arrives at a scene, his firefighters know he has taken command, he said.

Stith said an incident commander should be posted outside the building, "but it all depends on the situation. If I've got somebody in trouble, then I'm going to pull hose just like everyone else."

A similar case

What happened in the fire is eerily similar to a June 15, 2003, fire in Memphis, Tenn., that killed two firefighters. That fire broke out in a Family Dollar Store with a steel truss roof similar to the roof at the Sofa Super Store, and when firefighters arrived, they didn't initially find any fire.

Firefighters, including the incident commander, went into the building to look for the fire, without checking the ceiling area where fire was hidden. One of the firefighters opened a door to a back room, where he heard crackling.

When he opened the door the fire flared up and the force prevented him from shutting the door. Firefighters then brought hoses in to fight the fire. Two died when the fire in the ceiling caused the roof to collapse.

The Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health issued five recommendations for fire departments to follow as a result of what happened in that fire.

Among those were that "Fire departments should ensure that the first arriving company officer does not become involved in firefighting." The report said that is necessary "to effectively coordinate and direct fire fighting operations." In addition, the report said, involvement of the incident commander in fire fighting "hampers the communication of essential information as command is transferred to later arriving officers."

That investigation report said the incident commander needs to be especially cautious if the building has a steel truss roof because such roofs can conceal fire and can collapse within 6 to 13 minutes.

The report also said fire departments should conduct "pre-incident" inspections that detail the exact type of roof construction. Copies of that report should be given to 911 dispatchers "so that when a fire is reported, the dispatcher can notify, by radio, all first responders with critical information so they can take appropriate actions."

Finally, the report urged all departments fighting fires in steel truss buildings to immediately and carefully inspect ceiling areas with pike poles to check for fire. Such inspection should be done as close to an exit as possible.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has repeatedly praised the city's firefighters for their professionalism and heroism. At a press conference Saturday he said it's too early to speculate about what happened in the fire. "All of those questions will be part of the investigation."

"We're going to exhaustively and thoroughly examine all of that. And everything that can be learned from this fire for our benefit (and) for the benefit of our county and for states and communities throughout America."

Assistant Fire Chief Ronnie Classen said, "They didn't make a mistake when they first went in there. They did exactly what they were supposed to do, there's no question."