“The Charleston 43” – Always Remember and Never Forget

On Friday, June 18, we mark the third anniversary of an enormously tragic incident in which nine Charleston, SC firefighters lost their lives battling a furniture store fire.

To mark the incident, there will be no shortage of written and video tributes to experience, no shortage of “ALWAYS REMEMBER”s and “NEVER FORGET”s, and no shortage of opportunity to buy a helmet sticker, purchase a lapel pin, and otherwise show others that you share some type of connection with this and other LODD incidents.

But do you?

This year, I implore you to try something a little different.

Take an additional step or two of effort and delve into the lessons we can learn from what happened that day.  This NIOSH report has about as many recommendations for improvement as any other I’ve run across.

I’ll save you the task of counting them out- there are 43.  Forty-frickin three.

This represents a huge responsibility for us, as professional firefighters, to arm ourselves with some of the ammo we’ll be able to use to make sure each of us actually goes home at the end of the day (not just wear the cool helmet sticker).

To see the entire NIOSH report, click here.  Allow me to enumerate the recommendations made, and ask you if any of them may apply to you or your department today, three years after the Charleston 9 lost their lives.

NIOSH investigators concluded that, to minimize the risk of similar occurrences, fire departments should:

  • develop, implement and enforce written standard operating procedures (SOPs) for an occupational safety and health program in accordance with NFPA 1500
  • develop, implement, and enforce a written Incident Management System to be followed at all emergency incident operations
  • develop, implement, and enforce written SOPs that identify incident management training standards and requirements for members expected to serve in command roles
  • ensure that the Incident Commander is clearly identified as the only individual with overall authority and responsibility for management of all activities at an incident
  • ensure that the Incident Commander conducts an initial size-up and risk assessment of the incident scene before beginning interior fire fighting operations
  • train fire fighters to communicate interior conditions to the Incident Commander as soon as possible and to provide regular updates
  • ensure that the Incident Commander establishes a stationary command post, maintains the role of director of fireground operations, and does not become involved in fire-fighting efforts
  • ensure the early implementation of division / group command into the Incident Command System
  • ensure that the Incident Commander continuously evaluates the risk versus gain when determining whether the fire suppression operation will be offensive or defensive
  • ensure that the Incident Commander maintains close accountability for all personnel operating on the fireground
  • ensure that a separate Incident Safety Officer, independent from the Incident Commander, is appointed at each structure fire
  • ensure that crew integrity is maintained during fire suppression operations
  • ensure that a rapid intervention crew (RIC) / rapid intervention team (RIT) is established and available to immediately respond to emergency rescue incidents
  • ensure that adequate numbers of staff are available to immediately respond to emergency incidents
  • ensure that ventilation to release heat and smoke is closely coordinated with interior fire suppression operations
  • conduct pre-incident planning inspections of buildings within their jurisdictions to facilitate development of safe fireground strategies and tactics
  • consider establishing and enforcing standardized resource deployment approaches and utilize dispatch entities to move resources to fill service gaps
  • develop and coordinate pre-incident planning protocols with mutual aid departments
  • ensure that any offensive attack is conducted using adequate fire streams based on characteristics of the structure and fuel load present
  • ensure that an adequate water supply is established and maintained
  • consider using exit locators such as high intensity floodlights or flashing strobe lights to guide lost or disoriented fire fighters to the exit
  • ensure that Mayday transmissions are received and prioritized by the Incident Commander
  • train fire fighters on actions to take if they become trapped or disoriented inside a burning structure
  • ensure that all fire fighters and line officers receive fundamental and annual refresher training according to NFPA 1001 and NFPA 1021
  • implement joint training on response protocols with mutual aid departments
  • ensure apparatus operators are properly trained and familiar with their apparatus
  • protect stretched hose lines from vehicular traffic and work with law enforcement or other appropriate agencies to provide traffic control
  • ensure that fire fighters wear a full array of turnout clothing and personal protective equipment appropriate for the assigned task while participating in fire suppression and overhaul activities
  • ensure that fire fighters are trained in air management techniques to ensure they receive the maximum benefit from their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)
  • develop, implement and enforce written SOPS to ensure that SCBA cylinders are fully charged and ready for use
  • use thermal imaging cameras (TICs) during the initial size-up and search phases of a fire
  • develop, implement and enforce written SOPs and provide fire fighters with training on the hazards of truss construction
  • establish a system to facilitate the reporting of unsafe conditions or code violations to the appropriate authorities
  • ensure that fire fighters and emergency responders are provided with effective incident rehabilitation
  • provide fire fighters with station / work uniforms (e.g., pants and shirts) that are compliant with NFPA 1975 and ensure the use and proper care of these garments.

Additionally, federal and state occupational safety and health administrations should:

  • consider developing additional regulations to improve the safety of fire fighters, including adopting National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) consensus standards.

Additionally, manufacturers, equipment designers, and researchers should:

  • continue to develop and refine durable, easy-to-use radio systems to enhance verbal and radio communication in conjunction with properly worn SCBA
  • conduct research into refining existing and developing new technology to track the movement of fire fighters inside structures.

Additionally, code setting organizations and municipalities should:

  • require the use of sprinkler systems in commercial structures, especially ones having high fuel loads and other unique life-safety hazards, and establish retroactive requirements for the installation of fire sprinkler systems when additions to commercial buildings increase the fire and life safety hazards
  • require the use of automatic ventilation systems in large commercial structures, especially ones having high fuel loads and other unique life-safety hazards.

Additionally, municipalities and local authorities having jurisdiction should:

  • coordinate the collection of building information and the sharing of information between building authorities and fire departments
  • consider establishing one central dispatch center to coordinate and communicate activities involving units from multiple jurisdictions
  • ensure that fire departments responding to mutual aid incidents are equipped with mobile and portable communications equipment that are capable of handling the volume of radio traffic and allow communications among all responding companies within their jurisdiction.

Do any of these recommendations apply to your department or agency?  Of course they do.  Now work with your fellow leaders and make the changes that need to be made.

The events of June 18, 2007 are tragic indeed.  Failing to accept and learn from the recommendations is a disrespectful slap in the face to the Charleston 9, their families and friends, and the fine firefighters who were so greatly affected on that fateful evening.

So if you sport a cool Charleston 9 t-shirt , or if their sticker adorns your helmet, or you utter the phrase “Never Forget” every June 18, back it up with the knowledge that you took the effort to learn from what happened that day- and took the extra time to apply it to the way you operate on the fireground.

I say THAT’S the memory that Brad, Billy, Mark, Michael, Melvin, Earl, Mike, Louis, and Brandon are counting on you to never forget.

-J

3 Comments

  • Marques Bush says:

    John great post. I hope everyone will take the time this week to reflect on the reports provided.

  • dizliz1984 says:

    isnt it sad that the park dedicated to them is so lame? so sad indeed.

  • dizliz1984 says:

    charleston wanted another tourist attraction in adding the “fire park”. i am so sorry these men r dead. but they were FIRE FIGHTERS not paper pushers. they’re families have been compensated financially. our honor of them will not bring them back unfortunately. i think we over did it a long time ago……………………….

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John Mitchell

Firefighter/Paramedic and a Lieutenant in suburban Chicago

Toledo prayers

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