Every time we go out on a call, we encounter something different. While some calls are similar, the exact situation varies and we have to be flexible to respond in the most efficient way. What this means is that every time we come back it’s important to take a few minutes to talk about what went well and what we need to improve on. This ensures that we are constantly reevaluating and critiquing our performance to give the best emergency response. Similarly, when other departments encounter issues or problems, we all have an opportunity to learn from these situations and prepare ourselves so we can avoid a tragedy.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a class by Dr. David Griffin. Dr. Griffin was the engineer on the first due apparatus at the Super Sofa Fire on June 18, 2007 in Charleston, NC. It was a devastating fire that claimed the lives of nine firefighters. His presentation was gut wrenching as we watched videos of the fire unfolding and heard audio of the final words of the firefighters trapped inside. But what I walked away with was invaluable. Not only did the events of that fire stand out to me, but also the culture of the fire service in general. Those men that were lost in the fire will not have died in vain if we can learn and change so that a tragedy like this never happens again.
While some of the events of that day were a perfect storm, there were some mistakes and there are some things, that going forward, we can control. Here are some of the important things I took away from this:
Personal Protective Equipment: We have the PPE, we should always use it and follow our SOPs. At one point in the lecture, Dr. Griffin told us that the old timers would put a wet sponge in their mouths to breathe through because they didn’t want to use the SCBAs. Crazy. We need to keep up to date on industry standards and how to properly use our equipment.
Training: We should be constantly changing and learning different ways to address a diverse set of circumstances. For example, if we only practice doing a forward lay, things might not go smoothly if we have to do a reverse lay, portable pond or water shuttle operation. We need to have experience to address the situations that we might encounter in our district and our mutual aid partner’s districts.
Pump Ops: While being a pump operator might not seem sexy, if you can’t get the wet stuff on the red stuff, things are going to go downhill fast. A pump operator has to have the technical expertise to calculate PSI, water-flow, and friction loss in a matter of seconds to get the GPM to fire suppression levels. This brainiac firefighter is critical to stabilizing the situation. But every firefighter should have a basic understanding of what is involved.
Traffic Control: Please, for the love of everything beautiful, if you are a civilian driving by a fire scene, turn around if you can, go another way, or pull over and wait until you can safely leave the area. The Fire Police will direct you. Don’t pull around the trucks or in between them. That happened to us at our last fire. Firefighters are trying to save lives and property. Do you really think your time is more valuable than the lives that might be inside that building? Not only that, if you drive over a fire hose, you are cutting off the water supply and damaging the hose that might stop water flow altogether. If you had a loved on inside a burning building depending on that water supply, you wouldn’t want someone driving over the hose. Just don’t.
Pre-plans: One of the greatest tools we have as firefighters is our pre-plans. That means knowing your district and special properties of each building type in your area. Are there fire department connections, hydrants, dry hydrants, ponds, elevators, chemicals, people, animals, construction type, age of building, long driveways, elderly residents, and any other special considerations. Are there hydrants out of service? Is the road under construction? If it’s a commercial building, are inspections current? Most departments keep a binder of pre-plans in the apparatus to refer to. Our job is to keep them updated. If you have a special situation at your home or questions about your business, you can always notify the fire department in your area so they are prepared in case of an emergency.
Accountability: When firefighters enter a building, they give their tags to an accountability officer, so if someone goes missing, they know who they are looking for and their last known assignment. One of the tragedies of the Super Sofa Fire is that they weren’t sure who was left in the building for some time. I don’t remember what accountability system they had, but as firefighters, in all of the excitement on scene, we have to remember that the extra few seconds it takes to check in with the accountability officer could safe your life.
I pray that I never experience a situation like the Super Sofa Fire. It’s terrible to think that this tragedy was for a bunch of furniture. The one victim that was trapped in the building was rescued with the help of a mutual aid fire department. This truly was a perfect storm. So many things contributed, including the fact that the building has been modified and no sprinklers had been installed. (I still can’t figure out why someone would campaign against this life saving feature!) If we can learn from this, adapt to the changing environment, continue to train and build our knowledge so we are best prepared to face the situations we may encounter, they will not have died in vain.
If you have an opportunity to attend a class with Dr. Griffin, I highly recommend it. He is a dynamic speaker and will inspire you to be a better firefighter and by doing so, honor the Charleston 9.