On June 17, 2007, a fire disaster occurred in Charleston, South Carolina in what has been termed as the deadliest firefighting disaster in America since September 11, 2001, when terrorists brought down the World Trade Center. During the Charleston incident, by the time the fire was contained, nine firefighters were dead. Investigations were launched involving multi-agencies, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division among other agencies.
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In 2011, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released a report detailing what had happened during the fire tragedy and offered recommendations to improve national safety. The Charleston fire incident highlighted the many gaps that exist between theory and practice in the field of fire management. This paper discusses the current literature on the fire and emergency services field that applies to the Charleston fire incident and addresses gaps between theory and practice in fire management.
Fire Management Theories
The field of fire management has evolved and expanded over the years to include education, investigations, and inter-disciplinary collaboration with other players in the sector. The society has also advanced with complex designs used in buildings and infrastructures hence the need for firefighters to have extensive knowledge in fire dynamics and safety engineering. According to Butler and Wang, firefighters and managers can only address arising issues in the sector if they are competent (130).
What is learned in theory should be applied in practice or such knowledge would add little value to firefighting. Johansson and Sven argue that the “increased possibility for fire services to collect and analyze data before, during and after a fire have highlighted the opportunity for so-called smart firefighting” (82). In essence, smart firefighting involves the use of data to analyze fire incidents and be fully prepared to respond effectively in cases of emergency.
In theory, every step that should be taken during fire outbreaks is outlined clearly and fire departments are armed with comprehensive protocols that should be initiated once a fire alarm is triggered. The U.S. Fire Administration has updated its guidelines on risk management practices in fires service under the mission of providing “national leadership to foster a solid foundation for our fire and emergency services stakeholders in prevention, preparedness and response” (6).
However, despite the in-depth theoretical frameworks and guidelines, once firefighters get on the ground they may act outside protocols, which creates gaps between theory and practice. The following section highlights some of the gaps that were exposed in the way Charleston firefighters responded to the 2007 fire incident.
Gaps Between Theory and Practice – The Charleston Fire Tragedy
When a 911 call came in on the evening of June 17, 2007, concerning a possible fire outbreak in Sofa Super Store, a response team was dispatched according to protocol. Among the first responders was Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin and he immediately takes command of the situation as the highest-ranking officer (Menchaca). Garvin breaks the first rule of safety by walking into the building with only a protective coat and helmet leaving behind his full protective gear. Probably behavior could be explained by the fact that Garvin was conversant with the building because a year earlier he had conducted a fire drill to prepare for any form of emergency that might occur in the future (Menchaca). In theory, this aspect is part of smart firefighting, but Garvin’s implementation of that knowledge was inconsistent with the outlined guidelines.
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During the walk-through that Garvin and his team had conducted earlier in the place, the crew created pre-plans with sketches of the building (Menchaca). However, the plans did not indicate the concealed areas where fire can exist without being detected, thus posing a great danger to the involved firefighters. Additionally, against federal standards requiring officers in charge of an incidence to remain outside and coordinate firefighting efforts, Garvin led two other firefighters into the building and they did not find any fire and thus it was concluded that the showroom was safe. However, Garvin’s actions could be explained using theory X of supervision whereby managers have to monitor employees closely (Lawter et al. 85).
The crew on site should have used thermal imaging cameras, which are available to most fire departments, but they did not utilize the same even though it was outside the building inside a fire truck (Menchaca). Given the robust nature of firefighting theoretical frameworks and guidelines, the Charleston Fire Department would be expected to have responded in a better way.
However, in a conference held on October 17, 2009, in Duluth, Chris Villarreal, the captain of Charleston (SC) Fire Department Engine 9 highlighted some of the issues that could have contributed to the poor decision making. First, the incidence was reported as a trash fire and Garvin confirmed the same when he arrived at the scene (Gasaway). Therefore, the crew on Engine 9 underestimated the gravity of the incidence.
According to Siecienski, the Fire Chief at the Greenwich Fire Department, the first responders should assess the situation and communicate their findings via radio as a standard operating procedure (24). While Garvin did that, he misjudged the situation, thus triggering a series of poor decision-making. The crew on Engine 9 pulled a booster line, which was appropriate for trash fires, but not a structural fire as was in this case. In the Duluth lecture, Villarreal explained that it was a norm for Charleston (SC) Fire Department to deploy booster lines under such circumstances (Gasaway).
One of the outstanding gaps in theory arising from this scenario is the failure to understand that under stress, people will normally revert to their habits. When Charleston (SC) Fire Department crew arrived on the scene, they reverted to their standards of practice and norm of pulling booster lines without even thinking through what was happening (Gasaway). Therefore, while theoretical frameworks might appear comprehensive enough to address any emergency, the role of human factors is not normally considered.
The assumption, in theory, is that people will make scripted decisions based on guidelines, which is far from the reality of what happens on the ground. As a veteran firefighter, Gavin had all standard operating procedures in mind and he meant to address the situation as fast as possible. However, he was blindsided in his assessment, and theory fails for not factoring in such factors when creating frameworks and models to be deployed during firefighting.
The Charleston Super Sofa Fire incident highlights many gaps between theory and practice in fire management. On paper, protocols and guidelines appear to address every aspect of decision-making during an emergency, but on the ground, the implementation process is subject to many dynamics including personal biases and assumptions. Therefore, there is a need to bridge this gap to ensure that guidelines are based on evidence-based practice for improved response strategies as part of fire management.
Butler, Bret, and Peter Wang. “Fire Service Data User Applications-Pre-Emergency and Post-Event.” Research Roadmap for Smart Firefighting, edited by Casey Grant et al., National Institute of Standards and Technology, 2015, pp. 129-138.
Gasaway, Richard. “Charleston Sofa Super Store: An Unfiltered Perspective.” Fire Engineering, 2009. Web.
Johansson, Nils, and Stefan Svensson. “Review of the Use of Fire Dynamics Theory in Fire Service Activities.” Fire Technology, vol. 55, no. 1, 2019, pp. 81-103.
Lawter, Leanna, et al. “McGregor’s Theory X/Y and Job Performance: A Multilevel, Multi-source Analysis.” Journal of Managerial Issues, vol. 27, no. 4, 2015, pp. 84-101.
Menchaca, Ron. “Trapped: The Story of Nine Charleston Firefighters’ Deaths.” Post and Courier, 2007. Web.
Siecienski, Peter. Greenwich Fire Department Standard Operation Procedures. 2018. Web.
U.S. Fire Administration. Risk Management Practices in the Fire Service. 2018. Web.