Recommendations to be adopted quickly, Riley says

The Charleston Fire Department has outmoded tactics and dated equipment that must undergo significant change in order to catch up with basic fire service standards followed throughout the country, a city-appointed panel said Friday.

The independent panel of firefighting experts brought in to study the department and its handling of the June 18 Sofa Super Store blaze recommended a sweeping list of changes that will fundamentally alter the way the city battles fires and immediately improve safety for firefighters.

The six-member panel, which has been on the job in Charleston for less than a week, identified what it said were numerous deficiencies, including staffing shortages, lax safety enforcement and failure to keep pace with modern national firefighting techniques.

"This really brings this department more in line with the trends at other departments," panel leaderincluding staffing shortages, lax safety enforcement and failure to keep pace with modern national firefighting techniques.

"This really brings this department more in line with the trends at other departments," panel leader Gordon Routley said. "Most fire departments around the country use different configurations of equipment than what's used in Charleston."

Many of the recommendations announced at the midday news conference closely mirror recent reports by The Post and Courier highlighting gaps between the department's tactics and widely accepted standards.

Routley, a former fire chief in Shreveport, La., said his team still intends to release a more detailed analysis next month, but he said the group's initial findings were troubling enough to warrant bringing them to light immediately.

"I think there are areas that are significant firefighter safety issues that, to us, need to be implemented as soon as possible," he said.

Another reason for the earlier-than-expected announcement is that many of the recommendations are relatively easy to put into place, he said.

Mayor Joe Riley praised the panel's work and said he wholeheartedly supported the decision to release the findings as soon as they were identified because of the safety issues involved. "We didn't wait on the studies or the investigations," Riley said. "We moved with dispatch."

He said the city will move swiftly to implement the recommended changes. He pledged to work with City Council to fund any initiatives that require additional money, such as equipment purchases and staffing improvements.

Routley complimented the department's firefighting skills but said its equipment has not been modernized to reflect changes in building construction and a proliferation of combustible, man-made materials that cause fires to burn faster and hotter. "There is not much margin for error with the equipment they have been using," he said.

Routley said the review team has not yet completed its examination of the procedures and tactics used at the sofa store fire. He said the list of recommendations is not a direct result of what happened or didn't happen on June 18.

Others say the findings are a virtual road map of the missteps that led to the loss of nine men.

"It's painfully obvious,' said Jay Lowry, a former Charleston firefighter and former city fire inspector. "This stuff links directly back to the fire."

Roger Yow, who heads the local firefighters' union that represents about half of the city's firefighters, said the speed with which the panel drew up its initial recommendations illustrates the severity of the department's shortcomings.

"It's unnerving how quickly the panel came up with such a long list of major deficiencies," Yow said. "Clearly these recommendations show conclusively that the leadership at the top of the Charleston Fire Department has been lacking in ability and execution of command for quite some time."

Yow questioned whether the department can truly move forward under Fire Chief Rusty Thomas.

Thomas attended Friday's press conference. He stood impassively, his face betraying no emotion, as the panel announced its findings. But he was quick to endorse the recommendations. "We will put a lot into effect quickly," he said. "It's something we have been looking forward to."

Thomas' comments Friday stand in stark contrast to some of his earlier public statements. In the days following the sofa store fire, Thomas defended his department's handling of the blaze, insisted he would do nothing different and vowed to carry on the department's tradition of aggressive firefighting.

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