Riley Misses Lessons Learned From Sofa Store Report

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For someone who has pledged from very early that lessons would be learned from the Sofa Super Store fire, Mayor Joe Riley had a tough time taking the medicine Thursday.

The city commissioned an independent review team investigation of the blaze that killed nine Charleston firefighters, but the report’s lengthy rebuke of the dangerous culture, training, and aged equipment seemed to barely penetrate the Mayor’s stern belief the circumstances were unavoidable. He often has referred to the fire as “the perfect storm” and the “tragic meeting of deadly factors,” but Riley does not seem to factor in the department’s failings among those factors.

A question about the city’s lack of oversight in fire inspections that would have caught building code violations and insured that fire-suppressing sprinklers were installed was met with the mayor reiterating the building owner’s negligence in doing the additions without a permit. He later pointed out that ads for fire inspectors will be in the paper in the coming weeks.

The report’s indictment of the aggressive culture of the department — fighting every fire as if it were a slow-burning, single-family home — didn’t seem to sink in with the mayor at all.

“Every part of this report we take to heart,” he said, before demurring. “Taking the offense and being aggressive has been a natural part of firefighting. I can give you anecdotes of our people taking the offense and being aggressive and saving lives in the process. … This was a very unusual situation. Usually you go to where the fire is and that’s where the big thing is you have to knock down.”

The report makes it clear that this was not an unusual circumstance. That a department prepared to take on a fire in a large suburban shopping center, a department that would have done extensive pre-planning and applied that information, a department that would have used modern technology like thermal imaging, all per national standards, would have handled the fire differently.

The mayor could almost be allowed to take his viewpoint on fighting aggressive instead of fighting smart, had he not just read through a nearly 300-page report suggesting differently. And while the lay person is certainly obliged to take the “combat the fire” approach, the point is that fire department leaders should have known better long before June 18, 2007.

In his comments after the report’s release, retiring Fire Chief Rusty Thomas took the blame for the department’s response to the fire that night. It’s just a little disappointing that, after all this, the one guy who gets it is the one on the way out the door.

“Communities are less defined by the calamities they suffer and more in how they respond,” the mayor said Thursday. Certainly.

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