Routley at EGH Summit: Complacency is the greatest risk we face

Note: I’m currently at the Everyone Goes Home Safety Summit held at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md.

“When we train, we have all sorts of policies and procedures to follow. But when we go to a fire, it’s just chaos—and I love it!” This is just one example of the attitude Chief Gordon Routley encountered during the after-action review of the Charleston Sofa Super Store Fire that killed nine firefighters. As Routley put it in his presentation today, it scared him to hear this.

Charleston, Routley said, was both predictable and preventable—making it a great case study for the Life Safety Initiatives (LSIs). And so he took us through all 16 LSIs, talking about how they relate to the Charleston tragedy.

A few notables:

LSI #3: Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities.

This really hits home when you talk about Charleston, Routley said, because outside of a 5-minute window, the fire was inherently unbeatable. From a risk management point of view, that should have been obvious—but Charleston fire officers weren’t in the habit of doing risk assessments.

LSI #4: All firefighters must be empowered to stop unsafe practices.

A lot of firefighters in Charleston said that they knew a lot of things were going wrong and something bad was going to happen—but the culture didn’t allow for anyone to question the traditional way of doing things.

LSI #5: Develop and implement national standards for training, qualifications, and certification (including regular recertification) that are equally applicable to all firefighters based on the duties they are expected to perform.

The big problem in Charleston was training, Routley said. New firefighter requirements were less than Fire Fighter 1, and most training after that was on-the-job training. Charleston lacked the professionalism that’s so badly needed throughout the U.S. fire service.

LSI #8: Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.

Thermal imaging cameras were on the trucks brought to the Sofa Super Store, but that’s where they remained. Using them might have helped the crews find downed firefighters, or better yet, spot the fire in the void spaces before any firefighters went down. Routley also noted that Charleston used a trunked radio system that operated inefficiently within the building, when they could have been using talk-around or the repeaters on the command vehicles.

LSI #14 & 15: Public education must receive more resources and be championed as a critical fire and life safety program. AND Advocacy must be strengthened for the enforcement of codes and the installation of home fire sprinklers.

Perhaps the saddest part of the Charleston tragedy is that the Sofa Super Store was hopelessly out of code, and that was known and tolerated. Routley notes that this was in part due to a culture within the community that didn’t support sprinklers because of a fee system that provided a strong disincentive. As a result of the fire, community opinion is starting to come around to support strong code enforcement and installation of fire sprinklers and fire walls.

Few incidents are as devastating and far-reaching in scope as the Sofa Super Store fire. But walking through the LSIs while reviewing any near-miss or LODD is a powerful way to give life to the broad concepts the LSIs address. It’s an opportunity to see how directly the LSIs relate to what firefighters do each day, to show that they’re more than mere words—that they can have, and could have had, a direct impact on firefighters’ lives.

Shannon Pieper is managing editor of FireRescue magazine.

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Comment by Joey "BigShow" De Piano on March 11, 2009 at 11:31am
I agree 150% being complacent is killing us, and I ama firm believer that FAST/RIT and all the classes now threaded into them shold be like a tech rescue qualiy..all ff1 get an intro into it..thena level 2 on up even if a member does not become or desire to be part of fast team(and all should) at least they have an in depth look at being the team going in and the ff needing them.
Comment by Ed Laugesen on March 10, 2009 at 4:49pm
Excellent article, hits home on all points. It is sad that strtcopr is right about there being senarios light Charleston all over the Country. I for one have always had a thing for not liking pain or injury and I won't knowingly let any of my people into a building if I think it is unsafe or just not worth it. Unfortunately I see in some areas people placed in Chief Officer positions in career/paid Departments that have no firefighting experience and they are teaching tactics out of a book. The book is only the beginning, every call is different and complex in its own form. Us old guys have a long road ahead to convince a lot of the younger more technical generation that they need to learn the tried and true first and add to it, always keeping an open mind and treating every meeting, every event, and every encounter with others as a learning tool.

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