June 18-19 marked the 12th anniversary of the day when nine firefighters made the ultimate sacrifice at the Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston, S.C. This fire claimed the greatest number of firefighters’ lives since Sept.11, 2001.
I just took the time to listen to the first hour of dispatch audio from that horrific night. As I was listening, I was reminded about the A-shift fire at Turner’s TV next door to Fire Station 1 many years ago. I do not remember the crew on duty what was then Unit 13 except for Acting Lieutenant Bill VanGils. The initial actions taken by that engine crew prevented an outcome similar to the Charleston incident. As they entered the building that was located four buildings west of the fire station, the crew found heavy fire when it began to pop ceiling tiles. VanGils gave the order to back out of the building, and a major collapse occurred moments later.
The Sofa Super Store was a “big box,” just like Turner’s TV. There are many different buildings that fall into this category with large open areas, such as showrooms. Roof construction usually consists of steel bar joists or bowstring trusses, which, when subjected to fire or heat, can cause catastrophic collapse. In many cases, the structural members are hidden by the ceiling tiles that make up the drop ceiling.
Firefighters have to know the construction of the buildings in their first and second due areas. This is accomplished by understanding basic building construction. After knowing the basics, then it comes time to apply what was learned in the classroom. Firefighters must get out into their districts and perform site visits while buildings are under construction. Fire preplans of target hazards puts building drawings, hydrant locations, occupancy info and other important information on paper or in a computer to be used by responding companies prior to and after arrival to a fire.
Training in the big box is vital to understanding the major differences between a single-family dwelling and a building that may span acres. Learning how to follow hose lines out of a building and utilize tag lines becomes the norm rather than the exception. Cold smoke is as big a problem as active smoke.
Another piece of training that came in the latter half of my career was Rapid Intervention Crew training. A federal mandate requires two firefighters in and two out. In other words, except for rescue situations, there has to be a crew outside ready for deployment before a crew goes inside a burning structure. The larger a structure is, the greater the number of RICs that may be needed.
A skill that is acquired by years of experience is the ability to read smoke. The color, pressure and the location of the smoke can tell firefighters much-needed information. Some fires are just waiting for a little bit of air. In the big box, smoke may travel differently. Ventilation, which is the controlled movement of smoke and fire products, becomes a difficult task.
It takes a lot of skill and experience to fight a fire in any building, much less the big box.The bottom line is that no building is worth any firefighter’s life. Firefighters risk everything to save a life, but risk nothing to save nothing. A memorial has been constructed in Charleston, where those nine gallant firefighters lost their lives. The fire service must remember not only those nine, but all firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty. We must learn from the past and the present. Our prayers are with the families of the Charleston 9.
The fire service is presently recognizing an International Safety Stand Down. The code word in Chesterfield is “emergency,” recognizing the dangers of the job that lead to firefighter cancer. The fire service is taking bold strides to reduce exposure, educate members and do everything possible to prevent cancer. Please pray for firefighters and their families.