NIST Study on the Charleston Sofa Super Store Fire

It’s rapidly becoming one of the most studied fires in recent US history, and for good reason. The Sofa Super Store Fire of June 18, 2007 in Charleston, South Carolina claimed the lives of nine firefighters and has left an unending scar on the members of the Charleston Fire Department and
the American fire service. Today, the long awaited NIST Study was released in draft form with public comments being accepted through December 11, 2010.

While much of the information shared in this report has been discussed in various forums and seminars throughout the country, this reports brings forth the critical aspects of fire modeling and science to the equation. With detailed graphics, time lines, estimated toxic gas/temperature readings and rates of fire spread, this report provides yet another tool for each of us to learn and apply the many lessons from this incident.

I would encourage everyone (firefighters to fire chiefs) to once again sit down (using this report) and discuss their strategy & tactics for big box commercial fires to include: fire behavior and the dangers of undetected fire spread, the importance of maintaining situational awareness during offensive operations, the use and implementation of on-going, effective risk analysis/management, the pros and cons of various forms of ventilation (when, where, and how to initiate each) and the pros and cons of offensive operations in high-hazard occupancies.

Additional discussions should focus on the eleven (11) additional recommendations brought forth by NIST:

1. High Fuel-Load Mercantile Occupancies: NIST recommends that, at a minimum, all state and local jurisdictions adopt a building and fire code based upon one of the model codes, covering new and existing high fuel-load mercantile occupancies, and update local codes as the model codes are revised.

2. Model Code Adoption and Enforcement: NIST recommends that all state and local jurisdictions implement aggressive and effective fire inspection and enforcement programs that address:
a) all aspects of the building and fire codes;
b) adequate documentation of building permits and alterations;
c) the means of inspecting fire protection systems and detailing record keeping;
d) the frequency and rigor of fire inspections, including follow-up and auditing procedures; and
e) guidelines for remedial requirements when inspections identify deviations from code provisions.

3. Qualified Fire Inspectors and Building Plan Examiners: NIST recommends that all state and local jurisdictions ensure that fire inspectors and building plan examiners are professionally qualified to a national standard such as National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1031.

4. Sprinklers: NIST recommends that model codes require sprinkler systems and that state and local authorities adopt and aggressively enforce this provision:
a) for all new commercial retail furniture stores regardless of size; and
b) for existing retail furniture stores with any single display area of greater than 190 square meters (2,000 square feet).

5. Comprehensive Risk Management Plans: NIST recommends that state and local jurisdictions use comprehensive risk management plans to:

a) identify low, medium, and high hazard occupancies;

b) allocate resources according to risk identified; and
c) develop operating procedures that respond to specific risks.

6. Ventilation of Burning Structures: NIST recommends that state and local authorities:
a) develop guidelines as to how and when ventilation should be implemented during a fire; and
b) provide training to fire fighters on different types of ventilation—vertical, horizontal and

positive-pressure—and integrate into daily operations on the fire ground.

7. Research on Upholstered Furniture Flame Spread: NIST recommends that research be conducted to better understand ignition and fire spread on upholstered furniture in order to provide the tools needed by design professionals to improve the fire performance of furniture. The specific areas

requiring research are:

a) prediction of ignition of natural and synthetic coverings for current furniture, wall, ceiling and floor

lining materials, and room furnishings;

b) prediction of fire spread over actual furniture with and without fire barriers, fire retardants and fire

resistive materials; and

c) quantification of smoke and toxic gas production in realistic room fires.

8. Research on Improving Fire Barriers: NIST recommends that research be conducted to provide the tools needed by design professionals to improve the performance of compartmentalization. The specific areas requiring research are:
a) prediction of fire spread through walls constructed of wood, metal and gypsum wallboard;
b) prediction of fire spread through doors constructed of glass, wood, and metal;
c) prediction of fire spread through penetrations; and
d) prediction of performance of roll-up fire doors in actual fires and after extended service.

9. Research on Decision Aids for Allocation of Resources: NIST recommends that research be conducted to:
a) refine computer-aided decision tools for determining the costs and benefits of alternative code changes and fire safety technologies; and

b) develop computer models to assist communities in allocating resources (money and staff) to ensure that their response to an emergency with a large number of potential casualties is effective.

10. Research on Ventilation of Burning Structures: NIST recommends that additional research be conducted to:
a) improve characterization of how ventilation affects the growth and spread of fire within structures; and

b) provide the fire service with guidance on when and how to use ventilation to improve the fire environment during fire service operations.

11. Research on Performance Metrics for Fire Protection: NIST recommends that research be conducted to:
a) develop performance and effectiveness metrics for community fire protection;

b) survey effectiveness of existing fire services; and
c) use metrics to optimize development of new technologies.

FINAL NOTE: We owe it to the Charleston 9 to NEVER FORGET and to learn and share the many lessons that have been left behind for the safety and effectiveness of our members and the tactics we deploy.

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