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Charleston Fire Department: Five Years Later

June 18 will mark the fifth anniversary of the Sofa Super Store Fire. The City of Charleston Fire Department (CFD) lost nine firefighters on that warm, late spring evening.

The ensuing five years have seen the department members endure enormous grief, undergo a total dissection of their culture and operating principles, be subjected to a full generation of change in one fifth of a generation’s time and absorb multiple changes in leadership.

What the members have endured and accomplished from 2007 to 2012 is nothing short of remarkable. One retired member recently remarked, “The only thing that looks the same is the buildings.”

As the fifth anniversary is commemorated, the members of CFD can look back on these five years and take great pride in what they’ve accomplished. To use the word “change” when describing what the department has experienced would be akin to describing an avalanche as a dusting of snow.

In the midst of all of the grief and scrutiny, CFD still delivered service to the community in a professional and escalating manner. Operationally, the department initiated a number of changes and reinforced several service initiatives that resulted in service improvements. The most significant included:

  • All 19 companies being staffed with four personnel.
  • The adoption of a safe structural-firefighting SOP used by the CFD and four of its closest neighboring departments.
  • The adoption of multiple other SOPs designed to improve firefighter safety and operational efficiency.
  • The introduction of automatic-aid pacts (soon to be formally adopted) with four of its closest neighboring departments to ensure the closest unit, regardless of jurisdiction, is dispatched to calls for service.
  • Introducing and developing a command-from-the-car approach to incident command that includes building command teams at every incident.
  • Promoting interdepartmental drills with neighboring departments to improve the working relationships between all companies and shifts. 
  • Reactivation of the technical rescue team, one of four regional Type-2 urban search and rescue teams for the state of South Carolina.
  • A full-function hazardous-materials response team that serves the city, as well as providing hazmat response to several neighboring jurisdictions and decon support to the county sheriff’s meth lab unit.
  • Creation of a marine division to provide a firefighting asset that is part of a regional harbor fire-protection plan for the Port of Charleston.
  • Seeking state certification to allow its EMTs to practice as first responders in the EMS delivery system.

In the wake of its healing, the department also pursued professional improvement on an unprecedented level. Recruit school was expanded from 2 to 22 weeks and includes EMT-Basic. A career-development path was created that will be fully implemented in 2013.

The number of members obtaining classes and certifications on their own has increased significantly; 98% of the department has obtained Firefighter II level eight months in advance of a mandate from South Carolina OSHA. Two 80-hour officer candidate schools for newly promoted captains and engineers and one 60-hour officer development class for incumbent officers have been delivered. Another delivery is slated for July 2012 that will be primarily incumbent delivered.

The department has also embarked on providing access to outside educational and conference opportunities, including Fire-Rescue International, with the expectation that the knowledge members obtain will be brought back and shared with the department.

The counseling unit created after the tragedy has been invaluable in the department’s recovery. From grief counseling to managing change, the peers and clinicians have been as integral a part of the department’s recovery and progress as any other initiative. The department is working with the city to develop a wellness program for the members to improve the overall health and wellbeing of the department.

Not all the improvements realized have been easily achieved. Change under the best of circumstances is accompanied by stressors. For the Charleston experience, the contrasting factors of intense daily scrutiny, national criticism, some hunkering by staunch traditionalists and impatience by other factions to move farther ahead faster all played a role in where the department stands today.

Were it not for the perseverance of the department’s incumbent change agents and the unwavering support of the city administration over the last five years, the department would not be where it is today.

The department also assumed greater responsibility for fire prevention by bringing fire inspections back into the fire department, along with standing up a more robust fire-investigation team. As a result of this new team’s hard work, significant inroads are being made to ensure commercial and public assembly inspectable properties are fire safe.

In the next five years, CFD will face the same challenges as the rest of the fire service. The men and women staffing the apparatus, delivering training, ensuring fire safety and leading the department will be concerned with maximizing resources, continuing to seek improvements in health and wellness, maintaining current and expanding future professional-development opportunities and keeping the community safe.

The last five years forced the department into an enormous transformation. The next five will have it confidently undertaking the challenges of the future.

John Tippett is the deputy chief of operations for the City of Charleston Fire Department.

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