There is an old proverb that states “the night is the darkest just before the dawn.” And in the decade that has passed since the darkest moment in the history of the Charleston Fire Department (CFD), the June 18, 2007 Sofa Super Store tragedy that took the lives of nine CFD firefighters, a bright new day has been dawning.
That was the message of a group of CFD leaders who invited the media to their King Street headquarters on Wednesday, May 31 for a briefing in advance of the 10-year commemoration of the deadly fire. The event provided an overview of changes that have been implemented at the CFD since the fire, including the evolution of the community-wide automatic aid agreement that exists between five Charleston County-wide departments.
The briefing also included a summary of achievements the CFD has made over the past decade, a panel discussion with CFD team members who had served when the fire took place and continue to serve, a review of the anniversary service to be held on June 18, and a tour of current CFD equipment.
Charleston Interim Fire Chief John Tippett began the event with a run-down on all that has happened at the department since the fire. He began by noting the growth in the physical scale of the department. Since the Sofa Super Store fire, the CFD’s operating budget has grown from $14.9 million to $31.6 million. What was 260 total CFD members in 2007, with a daily minimum of 62 on staff, has become 354 members, with 82 on staff at a minimum during any given moment.
Spurred by then-Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, the city hired an outside group to perform a “rally report” on the CFD, and to make recommendations based on the report’s findings.
According to Chief Tippett, the working document that the committee produced has become their working “Bible” for protocols. But before delving into the specifics of the committee’s recommendations, he reflected on the tragedy itself.
“I was terribly saddened by the event,” said Tippett, who worked for the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Montgomery County Fire Rescue Service before being brought in by Mayor Riley after the event. “We could not begin to put ourselves in the shoes of the firefighters here knowing the dedication that existed in the department I work for. I was brought in to help the department get back on track, re-establish accountability, and put new practices in place. Part of my responsibility was to have some of those sentiments placed on the side burner while we were accomplishing what needed to be done for the progression of the department. The overarching message was we have to do everything we can to not to let it happen again.”
“We’ve pretty much changed how we do everything, but we haven’t changed what we do,” added Commander Captain Anthony Morley. “If a call comes in, we’re getting up and getting that call, EMS, fire whatever it may be. We’ve always done that. We’re always going to do that. How we do that, who we send, that’s the kind of things that have changed, but we’re always going to be there to serve the community the best we can.”
One of the changes Tippett oversaw first as Deputy Chief, and then Chief, was to see all CFD firefighters certified at the firefighter II level. The CFD also entered into an Automatic Aid agreement with other area departments, introduced a Fire Marshall Division to perform preemptive fire prevention throughout the community, and helped create Charleston County’s consolidated dispatch system in 2010.
“We had an accelerated emphasis on a Safe Structure Fire Standard Operating Procedure…That’s the document firefighters use everyday when they go out to work on structure fires,” said Tippett. “The focus, the attention there was on safety as well as a strategy and tactics program that provides for the best use of resources on the incident scene.”
“We also needed to bring down walls between the surrounding departments and the Charleston Fire Department -and again the hard work of the gentlemen sitting here today was instrumental in bringing down those barriers in creating the relationship we have today,” he continued. “The big jump for us was in 2010 when the Consolidated Dispatch Center opened up. That brought all of the fire departments in Charleston County over a period of time under that Consolidated Dispatch and that’s made a huge benefit to working our Automatic Aid agreement.”
The Automatic Aid agreement essentially mandates that the participating departments, the CFD, the St. John’s Fire Department, the James Island Public Service District, the St. Andrews Fire Department and the North Charleston Fire Department, ignore all political boundaries when responding to a call. The overall effect is decreased response time.
For Captain Karl Morris, Engine 118 B Shift Captain on Daniel Island, the introduction of the Fire Marshall program headed up by Charleston Fire Marshall Mike Julazadeh has had a major impact on how business operates on Daniel Island.
“We look at new buildings, of course on Daniel Island they are going up like crazy, but we have a preliminary program that we use,” said Morris. “We have days where we go through new buildings and existing buildings, getting familiar with what’s in them, the layout, things like that. We do (building) walk-throughs on Thursdays, just become familiar with what’s there or what’s going to be there, to help us prepare in case something does occur.”
The Sofa Superstore fire has also prompted a renewed focus on training.
“We knew something had to be done, so when (Chief Tippett) came on board we had an outline of what needed to be accomplished,” said Baldwin. “It wouldn’t have been right for us not to do it. To honor those nine guys, everyone was on board 100 percent because we knew something had to change…We try to change every single day. We try to stay ahead of the curve.”
According to the entire panel gathered at the press conference, the fact that change was embraced from the top had marked impact on individual teams and firefighters.
“Change is frustrating, it really is, especially when it’s on a consistent basis like we’ve been through the past few years,” said Battalion Chief Joseph Roberts. “It’s had its ups and downs. It’s been a rollercoaster ride of emotions…But that’s how we learn in this profession. When something bad happens, everything changes.”