Remembering the Charleston 9, three years later

Three years ago today, nine firefighters lost their lives in a Charleston, SC furniture warehouse fire, marking the largest number of firefighter casualties at a single incident since 9/11.

Multiple investigative reports from NIOSH, the City of Charleston Post-Incident Assessment and Review Team and The Post and Courier analyzed the circumstances surrounding the fire and possible procedural problems within the Charleston Fire Department. These reports arrived at similar conclusions: a lack of a unified command structure, improper use of PPE and an uncoordinated communication network left firefighters on the scene unprepared to deal with a large, non-code compliant structure filled with highly flammable materials.

All first responders involved displayed tremendous courage and heroism. The nine firefighters lost in the blaze held more than 100 years of firefighting experience between them and were active members in the community. It is critically important to examine the situation surrounding their deaths for lessons that other departments can learn to avoid future loss of life.

An analysis of photographs and video of the fire scene indicated that firefighters, including chief officers, were not utilizing personal protective equipment appropriately. Some firefighters were wearing street clothes, while others had open coats or were missing helmets. A later evaluation indicated melting of polyester station uniforms (non-NFPA 1975 compliant) in the areas where the turnout clothing was damaged by the fire exposure.

Some firefighters could be seen walking through toxic smoke without having donned SCBA’s, and the NIOSH report later discovered a department policy to refill SCBA tanks after reaching levels much lower than the OSHA Respirator Standard and the NFPA 1852 standard, leaving some with only 20-25 minutes of oxygen.

Although thermal imaging cameras were available on the scene, they were not used in the scene size-up or to help find victims.

The single radio frequency used became severely overloaded and was not closely monitored by command officers, resulting in several “Mayday” emergency calls from trapped, disoriented firefighters going unnoticed and unanswered.

Many of the suggestions found in the reports involve establishing an Incident Management System, as found in the NFPA 1500 and 1561 standards, to provide a unified command and coordinated response to large fire incidents. The NIOSH report highlighted several examples of a breakdown in the command structure that could have been avoided with an established IMS, including: “multiple chief officers serving in command roles in an uncoordinated manner, lack of an established accountability system to track fire fighters on scene, a RIC was not established, an ISO was not assigned, and the fire department and police department did not work effectively together to control traffic and protect hoselines delivering water to the scene.”

Click here to read the full PDF of the 2008 report prepared for the City of Charleston. The NIOSH report also contains important recommendations based off an extensive analysis of the incident.

Have you read through the reports? Were any of the key recommendations adopted by your department?