Today brings the grim news that nine firefighters lost their lives doing battle with a fire in a sofa store in Charleston, SC. Our hearts go out to surviving family members and the community. For those of us in Massachusetts, this is sadly reminiscent of the Worcester warehouse fire that claimed six lives in 1999. Today's event joins the list of the nation's worst firefighting tragedies.
The details from this event are just emerging and will no doubt be played out over the news today and in the coming days. Apparently, a roof and shelving that collapsed caused the deaths. There were no sprinklers in the building. Ironically, this tragic event occurs during 2007 International Firefighter Safety Stand Down from June 17-23, a week dedicated to call international attention to the unacceptable numbers of line-of-duty firefighter deaths and injuries and the critical issues of firefighter safety.
Lack of adequate equipment all too often a factor in fatalities
While the investigation and analysis of the fatalities in this fire will follow, all too often, a lack of adequate equipment is a contributing factor to the fatalities. Earlier this year, MSNBC produced a special report on PASS warning device failures that resulted in 15 firefighter deaths between the time the problem was first reported to the CDC and when new standards were issued. PASS devices, or Personal Alarm Safety Systems, are worn by firefighters. They serve as a locator by emitting a beep or a chirp when activated or when a firefighter is no longer moving.
In the Worcester tragedy, as in the World Trade Center, radio failure added to the event confusion. In addition, thermal imaging equipment and fireproof rope safety lines were unavailable, equipment that might have prevented the loss of life. The FEMA report of the Worcester tragedy included several recommendations:
- Fire prevention efforts should target abandoned and even temporarily vacated building to avoid fires
- Proper permitting and on-going building inspections for construction changes within businesses can help reduce non-compliant interior finishes that contribute to combustion
- Large buildings such as warehouses and high rises require special search techniques and tools, including additional air tanks
- Better techniques must be developed to better track the movements of firefighters within a structure
- Alternative radio channels should be explored as radio channels can be overloaded at multiple alarm fires
- Thermal imaging cameras, while expensive, are invaluable equipment for all fire departments.
Firefighters will continue to put their lives on the line to save others - that's what they do. And we, their friends and neighbors, will continue to be grateful for their courage and sacrifice. The very least our communities should do is to make it a priority to provide them with the best prevention resources and technology that we can.