By Janelle Foskett
Published Monday, June 18, 2012
After nine firefighters died in the Sofa Super Store Fire on June 18, 2007, the City of Charleston, S.C., and the Charleston Fire Department (CFD) endured a wave of criticism related to the tactics employed at the fire as well as the department’s overall operations. In order to determine what went wrong that day—and how similar tragic events could be prevented in the future—the City of Charleston hired a team of fire service professionals to conduct an independent comprehensive review of the CFD and the overall state of fire protection services in Charleston.
The Post-Incident Assessment and Review Team was headed by J. Gordon Routley and included FireRescue magazine Editor-in-Chief Timothy E. Sendelbach. Routley works with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation on the Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives Project and has conducted more than 30 firefighter fatality investigations.
The Review Team delivered its Phase 1 Report, an organizational analysis of the CFD, in October 2007, and its Phase 2 Report, the first official analysis of the Sofa Super Store incident, in May 2008.
FireRescue magazine reached out to Routley to get his thoughts on the department’s progress, what the fire service can learn from the incident, advice he would offer the department’s incoming chief, and more.
FireRescue (FR): As a member of the Post-Incident Assessment and Review Team hired by the City of the Charleston, you got a firsthand account of the inner workings of the CFD. Based on what you saw back in 2007, five years later, what do you think has been the most promising change for the department?
Gordon Routley (GR): When we arrived in Charleston to begin the investigation, we encountered a fire department that had experienced a tragedy of immense proportions. Every member of the department had been personally impacted by the loss of close friends and coworkers, and several were fortunate to have survived the events that occurred at the Sofa Super Store. The reactions we encountered spanned the full range of emotions, from denial to extreme anger.
It quickly became evident to the team members that this was a fire department that was living 40 years in the past in terms of fire service evolution. There was an organizational mindset that promoted and enforced a system of rules, regulations, strategy, tactics and procedures that reflected the 1960s, and there were many individuals within the department who were very comfortable with that condition. At the same time, there were many members of the CFD who knew that the organization was living in the past and were anxious for change to occur.
The two mindsets could be characterized by the reactions to the tragedy. The traditionalists were convinced that the loss of nine firefighters was simply a case of unfortunate circumstances, and that if the same fire were to occur again, they would attack it in exactly the same manner. At the other end of the scale, several firefighters told us that they had fully expected a line-of-duty death, based on the way the CFD was operating. They believed that change would only come after a firefighter had died, but they never contemplated the loss of nine firefighters.
Five years later, the CFD is a very different organization. The most important change that has occurred is in the overall orientation of the department. Countless positive changes have occurred and are continuing to occur, because the leadership has taken the department in the right direction and the members have enthusiastically adopted new concepts and adapted to change. It is sad to realize that the change was prompted by an immense tragedy, but it is the one way that we can see something positive coming from the totally preventable loss of nine lives.
FR: How do you feel about the progress that has been made? Are you happy with the changes that have taken place—or do you feel like the department has a ways to go in implementing the necessary changes?
GR: Everything I have heard and seen tells me that the department has made tremendous progress in implementing the changes that we recommended and that the process is continuing. There was a lot to be done and some of those changes take years to fully implement, but I am convinced that the department has exceeded expectations in terms of radical and rapid change.
The largest share of the credit has to go to Chief Tommy Carr, who was absolutely the best person to provide the vision and leadership to bring about this type of change under very difficult circumstances. I am very sad that his health has forced him to retire prematurely, but he succeeded in moving the department far enough that others will be able to carry on and finish the work.
There are obviously many others, at every level within the CFD, who contributed to the effort to make the changes that were needed, and every member has had to adapt to some fairly radical changes. The credit extends to countless others who have supported the effort, particularly to Mayor Joe Riley who has ensured that the CFD would have the resources and the backing to implement all of the recommendations of the investigative team.
FR: What do you think were the most challenging recommendations for the CFD to implement, and why?
GR: The process involved so many individual changes that I think the biggest challenges had to be acceptance and absorption. After suffering an emotional tragedy, followed by the very public identification of a long list of problems and deficiencies, the members of the CFD had to deal with the process of radical change to implement numerous recommendations. Understandably, some were defensive or in denial, while others were angry and anxious to move forward. Five years later, I think that we can see the positive results, but we can also see how difficult it must have been for everyone to get through that process.
FR: In your travels, you have visited many departments and given many presentations about the investigation. What’s your take on how other departments are absorbing the lessons of the Sofa Super Store Fire?
GR: I have stated many times that we didn’t learn anything new from the Sofa Super Store Fire. There were no scientific discoveries on the nature of fire or stunning revelations that will change strategy and tactics. We saw, on a very grand scale, what happens if you don’t pay attention to many old lessons that should have been learned. Everything that happened in Charleston was consistent with things that were already well known and predictable. The ultimate lesson is that we have to learn all of the individual lessons and apply them to the way we do business in order to avoid learning them the hard way. It is painful to all of the members of the investigation team that nine individuals lost their lives because their fire department sent them into a situation without the necessary training and support systems to protect them—even more so when we realize that the incident never would have occurred if the appropriate codes and standards had been enforced.
Since our report was released, we have taken advantage of every opportunity to tell the story of the Sofa Super Store wherever there is an audience of fire service members that’s willing to listen. In most cases, the reaction is almost disbelief at many of the details, but we also get many comments from individuals who tell us “that could have been us” or “we had a situation similar to that” or “now I understand.” I believe that almost everyone who attends one of those presentations leaves with valuable lessons, whether it is some particular point that could make a difference someday or a more global appreciation of the importance of ensuring that we are properly prepared for any situation that we may encounter.
Personally, nothing is more gratifying than to have a firefighter or an officer tell me that they encountered a situation that immediately reminded them of something in the presentation they had attended and it caused them to change the way they reacted. If those lessons save the life of one firefighter, it was all worthwhile.
FR: Do you think this incident changed the fire service?
GR: I hope that it has changed the fire service by making us all even more aware of the importance of many things that we already knew or should have known—from the need for fire code enforcement and the benefits of automatic sprinklers to incident management, accountability, communications, strategy, tactics, ventilation, hydraulics and everything else that adds up to operational safety.
FR: What are three takeaways you hope other departments learn from the Sofa Super Store Fire?
GR: 1) Fire prevention keeps firefighters alive. 2) Firefighter safety is produced by doing many things the right way at the right time, every time. It is all important. 3) No building is worth the life of a single firefighter—much less nine. We must never let this happen again.
FR: The CFD has a new chief, Karen Brack. What would you say to her about taking on the challenge of running this department, with its unique history?
GR: Chief Brack will have to adjust to a new organization, and the CFD will have to adjust to her, as is inevitable when a new fire chief assumes command from outside the organization. The good news is that the CFD is in good condition and moving in the right direction with positive backing from City Hall. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for a new chief, but it’s a lot better than assuming the leadership of a fire department that is battered, broken and struggling.
My advice would be to get to know the people in the department, as well as the community, and take the time to understand the particular history and circumstances of the CFD. The memory of the incident that occurred five years ago is never far away and must be respected, but the essential changes have already occurred. I would be looking forward, continuing in the same direction and solidifying the progress that has already been accomplished.
Read an interview with Gordon Routley about lessons learned from the Sofa Super Store Fire here:
Applying Lessons Learned from Charleston & Other LODDs
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