By Natalie Caula
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) – A newspaper courier was parked on Daniel Island when he heard crackling and turned around to find a building on fire. He called 911, which began a series of events that is eerily similar to a Charleston fire that ended the lives of nine firefighters.
The 911 call made on Daniel Island led Charleston firefighters to a medical complex at 899 Island Park Drive on March 1, 2011. According to a recent report released by the fire department, five engines, three ladders and two battalion chiefs made it to the fire that engulfed the two story commercial building.
But it's what happened when the first group arrived that created the few similarities to the deadly 2007 Sofa Super Store fire, according to Interim Chief Frank Finley.
Two firefighters were inside the building, in the stairwell, when everything almost went horribly wrong. According to the report and fire department leaders, those men were called out of the building just minutes before the roof collapsed. A battalion chief made the call to pull them out, according to Deputy Chief John Tippett.
"I think the officer of the first engine just got sucked into the incident and reverted to some old practices," Chief Tippett said. "The first arriving officer did not make good decisions. The battalion chief arrived a minute or two behind him and was forced to change the tactic, correct the behavior, correct what was going on, and that in itself demonstrates where we've come as a fire department, that the incident commander did not allow himself to be drawn into the decision making path of the first officer and he took corrective steps."
By the time those corrective steps were put into place, several operating procedures had been broken. The 44-page critical incident review report starts with a memorandum including the department's action plan 48-hours after the fire. It also includes all the issues they encountered including water supply and accountability issues and communication problems. Many of those issues were key policy changes that were enacted within the department following the Sofa Super Store fire and outlined in the city's independent review of the 2007 blaze.
The report for the Daniel Island fire identifies 23 findings:
Chief Finley and Dep. Chief Tippett briefed the city's public safety committee on the report on Monday afternoon.
"There were similarities," Chief Finley said. "But the one thing you have to remember is the outcome is different. All that's gone on in the last several years, the outcome of this whole thing, even though it was a set back, the outcome was totally different based on the training and the new direction we're headed," Chief Finley said.
According to Dep. Chief Tippett, disciplinary actions were taken on some personnel members who were involved in the firefighting. Council member and public safety committee member Aubrey Alexander questioned whether or not the department was back on target.
"Whoever showed up first totally forgot everything, it seems," Alexander said.
Dep. Chief Tippett assured that before disciplinary actions were taken, the entire department underwent re-training and the report was distributed to the entire command staff.
"If you look at how humans react, not just firefighters, but how humans react to change, it's a dynamic process. Some humans react quickly, some people adopt and embrace those changes, some people were waiting for those changes to happen and then others are reluctant or resistant just all the way down the line," Dep. Chief Tippet said. "What we deal with, on a daily basis, is people who are going through these cycles of change."
The department leaders say they're constantly working to help with the transitions for some firefighters, and with the cultural changes within the department since the 2007-2009 policy changes. Following the Daniel Island fire, Chief Finley says firefighters went through training which re-created the scenario from the blaze, including a heavy smoke simulation.
According to department leaders, the bottom line is, the actions of the battalion chief saved the lives of two firefighters, called out of the building just in time. Despite the outcome though, few argue that for a department on the path of improvement the last few years, there's a sense of disappointment.
"We would have preferred this not have happened," Dep. Chief Tippett said.