THE nation got a scary and sobering reminder last week about the risks our firefighters face every time they respond to an alarm. An inferno at a Charleston, S.C., furniture store claimed the lives of nine firefighters, largely because the store wasn't required to have a sprinkler system.
South Carolina is no place for a firefighter who is faint of heart. The state also doesn't follow some federal recommendations in fire-fighting techniques, and legislators ought to change that - fast.
Apart from the 9/11 attacks, the Charleston fire was America's second deadliest for firefighters in 30 years. Coincidentally, the tragedy occurred shortly after Toledo's commemoration of the 1961 deaths of four firefighters in a gasoline truck explosion that injured 10 others. South Carolinians are as devastated now as Toledoans were then, and the nation grieves with the families and the surviving comrades of those who died.
Although the Sofa Super Store was up to code, it did not have sprinklers because they were not legally required. Legislation that would have required older buildings to install sprinkler systems failed in the state legislature two years ago. Now, the folly of that decision is all too clear: South Carolina and all other states that don't require sprinklers in older buildings need to change their laws immediately.
This was not a second-class fire department. In fact, it prided itself on its safety record. No Charleston firefighter had been killed on duty in more than 40 years. The victims in this fire, trapped when the roof collapsed, were between 27 and 56 years of age and had a total of 130 years of experience on the job.
Every fire is hazardous. However, the danger may have been compounded by a phenomenon called flashover, in which exceptionally hot gases so intensely heat a building and its contents that they spontaneously burst into flames.
In the Charleston blaze that process was accelerated because the buildings contained furniture made from combustible materials such as wood lacquer and polyurethane foam, which can reach the flashover point quickly. Sprinklers wouldn't have extinguished a fire of this intensity but they might have slowed it.
State and federal investigations are under way, and the chief has said he's confident that the firefighters did exactly as they were trained to do. The South Carolina Professional Firefighters Association concurs, saying state policies are the problem, not the firefighters' performance. For example, federal guidelines say that two firefighters should remain outside a structure for every two who go inside on rapid intervention missions. But South Carolina has a two-in, one-out rule.
Nothing the South Carolina legislature can do will bring back the dead firemen. It can, however, help other firemen by finally mandating common-sense rules like sprinkler systems in older buildings and safety guidelines meant to give maximum protection to those who risk their lives every day.