Charleston firefighters were often told in training that they weren't doing their jobs if a newspaper photographer snapped their photo at a fire scene. That meant they were standing outside the burning building, rather than attacking the blaze head-on.

The Charleston Fire Department has long prided itself on a hard-charging, aggressive approach to battling fires. Firefighters don't stand by and wait for flames to die. They rush into the belly of the blaze to save lives and property. Risk is just part of the job.

"That's the tradition that's been carried on in the city of Charleston Fire Department since time was time," Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said. "Are we going to let someone's property burn? No, sir."

Some now question the department's old-school tactics in the aftermath of the inferno June 18 at the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway that killed nine Charleston firefighters.

The incident has become part of a national debate raging in firefighting circles. Just what level of risk is acceptable? And to what degree should firefighters endanger themselves to save property, or even other lives?

Fire safety experts and union officials have criticized the Charleston department's handling of the furniture store blaze, saying its procedures are out of line with nationally prescribed standards. They contend that the department is relying on outdated methods that subject firefighters to unnecessary hazards.

In particular, they question why the incident commander was allowed to actively participate in the Sofa Super Store fire rather than maintain a vantage point to monitor the blaze. And they wonder why so many firefighters were inside a building known to have steel roof trusses, widely known as hazardous in fires.

Thomas and many firefighters dismiss these critics as outsiders who don't understand the realities of fighting fires in a dense city full of historic buildings. The chief is quick to point to the training and experience of his men, some of whom have been on the job for more than 30 years. Thomas said he trusts that experience and the department's time-honed techniques, regardless of what written standards might say.

"We come from a long line of traditional firefighting, and we are never going to get away from that — never," Thomas said. "You can't read out of a book how to put a fire out. You have to go out there and do it, and that's what we do."

Thomas said he will make changes, if necessary, based on the results of the state and federal investigation into the fire now under way. But as it stands, he thinks his men performed just as they were trained to and he wouldn't do anything differently if it happened again, he said.

'Smoke eaters'

The department's aggressive approach can be traced to the city's early days, when fires could sweep through blocks of downtown, claiming hundreds of homes and outbuildings. A large fire of 1861, for example, tore through 540 acres on the peninsula — destroying 575 homes, churches and stores along a mile from East Bay to Gibbes streets.

With buildings butting up against one another, often with shared walls, it became imperative for firefighters to get on the scene quickly and knock down the blaze before it could become a conflagration. If the fire was inside, they went in after it.

These "smoke eaters" learned by doing, and everyone got their hands dirty. Each generation of firefighters has passed on these techniques to the next.

But today's Charleston firefighters face even greater challenges. Downtown, the historic buildings they protect have become a crucial part of Charleston's lifeblood in a tourism-dependent economy. In the suburbs, they must contend with an abundance of big-box stores, warehouses and other sprawl crammed into bustling developments and constructed with a variety of lightweight, man-made materials.

Nationally, departments have edged away from fighting fires inside buildings, particularly when property alone is at stake. But the Charleston Fire Department, like the city it serves, values tradition. And that extends to the way it fights fires. The city's firefighters have a saying: You don't want to be an "outstanding" firefighter — one left standing outside a blaze.

Joe Schofield worked 42 years with the department before retiring last year as assistant chief. He said there is simply no other way to preserve property and ensure no one has been left inside a burning building.

That lesson was driven home in January 1999 when fire crews found the bodies of three homeless men in the ruins of a King Street building thought to be vacant, Schofield said.

"You can't put fires out by standing outside, shooting through the windows," he said. "Nobody wants to be on the outside looking in that's a firefighter. Everybody wants to be on the inside, where it's at."

The questions begin

Among those questioning the department's approach is Roger L. Yow, who retired from the department as a captain in 2003. Yow said he embraced the department's aggressive methods during his 25 years of service. But he said the deaths of nine former colleagues, including three who were members of the Charleston Firefighters Association, the local firefighters' union he heads, is a clarion call for change.

"There are a lot of things that can be done to keep this from happening again," he said. "To me, the biggest part of the tragedy is the aggressive firefighting."

The department's hard-charging attitude is evident in video footage and photographs from the scene of the June 18 fire. Off-duty firefighters can be seen participating in the battle wearing shorts and short-sleeve shirts, while other firefighters move around partially dressed in protective gear.

Former Charleston firefighter Jamy Cote said he used to receive a cold shoulder from some colleagues when he questioned why the department wasn't adhering to nationally prescribed safety recommendations. Among other things, firefighters often lacked adequate information about potential dangers in buildings they entered and a clear understanding of their roles at the fire scene. The department also lacked a special stand-by team to rescue firefighters who became imperiled, he said.

"It's an aggressive department, but not a progressive department," said Cote, who left the department last year. "I would still go climb a ladder up a three-story building to rescue someone. ... But I want to know: If I go down in a fire, who is coming to get me?"

Thomas dismissed Cote's statements as an inaccurate account from a disgruntled former employee. Thomas said his firefighters have the best training and equipment, intimately know their roles and the buildings in their districts, and operate as safely as possible in an inherently dangerous job. "I want my guys to get it done, and they do."

Thomas pointed to a bank building across the road from his Wentworth Street office. "If you have a fire over there and the roof has started to come in, are we going to go inside? No, I don't think so," he said, shaking his head. "But if it ain't, and the first guy on the scene thinks it's safe, guess where he's going? He's going in there to fight a fire."

Valor versus risk

Before last month, Charleston had not lost a firefighter in the line of duty since 1965. And the department has received national recognition for its bold efforts. In 2005, Charleston firefighter Ed Henry charged into a blazing building alone, climbed blindly to the third floor and pulled a man to safety. That effort earned him a trip to the White House, where President Bush presented him with the Medal of Valor, the nation's top award for public safety.

Still, union officials have said the city needs to improve its incident command structure, its pre-planning for structures with known fire hazards and its procedures for deciding whether to fight a fire offensively or defensively. They have questioned Thomas' department policy stating that the highest-ranking officer is automatically in charge of a fire scene and that the officer can engage in firefighting and rescue operations. Everyone in the department, including Thomas, is expected to pitch in.

But federal guidelines recommend that incident commanders remain outside of burning structures and that the passage of command be handed off formally so that the incoming commander can be briefed on overall conditions and the whereabouts of all firefighters.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley scoffed at the recommendation, saying it makes no sense to keep an experienced commander away from the action. "The somewhat bureaucratic notion that a fire incident commander is not to be engaged, to me, is foolhardy."

The national debate over safety guidelines has raged for years within the fire service. Some firefighters view the recommendations' authors as desk jockeys who are out of touch with the realities of a fire scene, where conditions can change in an instant and decisions are often based on instinct.

Some firefighters around the nation say the recommendations, many of which stem from investigations into other firefighter fatalities, are designed for best-case scenarios. Meeting these guidelines is impractical given funding and staffing issues, some say.

Much of the discussion over the years regarding firefighter safety has focused on training and equipment, cardiovascular health and incident command tactics.

Still, many experts point out that while fire service equipment, training and knowledge have improved dramatically over time, the number of fire fatalities has remained constant at about 100 per year. One report estimates firefighter fatalities are on track this year to hit 116, a figure that includes heart attacks and traffic accidents.

David Daniels is the fire chief and emergency services administrator in Renton, Wash. He lost nine colleagues in the line of duty during a 12-year span and now serves on a national committee on firefighter safety. He said firefighters will continue to die in preventable accidents until the profession as a whole agrees that its macho, risk-taking culture is a problem. "These folks have, unfortunately, not come to the realization that we don't get paid to get killed to save people's stuff," he said.

Some fire safety experts fault the news media for glamorizing and sensationalizing firefighters' actions, saying it creates an unattainable standard. Some firefighters might take needless risks to prove their courage, they say.

Fire safety officials at a 2005 symposium identified the issue as one of the more pressing problems in firefighting and a contributing factor in firefighter fatalities. The National Fire Service Research Agenda Symposium was made up of several national fire safety groups and agencies, including the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, the National Institute for Standards and Technology and the U.S. Fire Administration.

"The current fire service culture is widely recognized as a barrier to making important improvements in firefighter safety and health," a symposium report concluded. "Cultural values often place bravado and heroism ahead of firefighter safety."

Brian Crawford, an assistant fire chief in Shreveport, La., recently wrote an article on the topic for Fire Chief magazine.

Crawford, who holds a master's degree in industrial psychology, spoke only in general terms about the problem and said he has no direct knowledge of Charleston's department or the furniture store tragedy.

"There is an image of heroism and glamor in the firefighting profession that has to be lived up to," he said. "Unfortunately, trying to live up to that image gets us killed. I call it the 'duty-to-die syndrome.' "

He received calls and e-mails from firefighters all over the world in response to the article. One Canadian fire chief wrote about two firefighters from his department who received medals after a daring rescue. "It was a proud moment for those two firefighters and their families. The reality of the situation was they split up and broke several standing orders to do what was required. They should have been given days off instead of a medal."

Crawford said it starts at the hiring stage. "If that person says it's about putting your life on the line every day, it's the responsibility of that department to provide them with a realistic job description."

He said much of firefighting is tedious and aimed at preventing fires, through inspections and education.

"That's the worst, a firefighter saying, 'That's the way I want to die,' " he said. "It's not about being a hero. It's about being a public servant and getting home to your family at the end of the day."

Thomas said the fire service attracts dedicated, action-oriented people who want to help others and are prepared to take risks in doing so. Like the nine men who died, many continue to give back to their communities outside of work, simply wanting to be of service. "I don't think it's problem," he said. "I think that's just the way firefighters are."

Even after the June 18 fire, applications continue to arrive at the Charleston Fire Department from people eager to serve and put their lives on the line, Thomas said.

"Will I have trouble hiring nine people?" he said. "Not one bit."

Noah Haglund contributed to this report.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com. Reach Ron Menchaca at 937-5724 or rmenchaca@postandcourier.com.