Years ago, I lived close to a fire station. I waved at the firemen standing in the garage door bays as I passed by, and I looked out for the giant fire trucks when I'd pulled out of my especially tricky driveway. But outside of that, the city's firefighters were rarely on my mind. Until June 18.
Last week, the six-member Post Incident Assessment and Fire Review Team hired by Mayor Joe Riley issued its Phase I Report. This report is a full-scale performance management review of the Charleston Fire Department, top to bottom. The specifics about the Sofa Super Store blaze will be issued in a later summary which will include input from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
The Phase I Report was damning in its scope and called for sweeping changes in CFD leadership, training, fire tactics, equipment, staffing, departmental responsibilities, accountability, and internal and community outreach.
The Post and Courier made a big deal about the city reviewing earlier drafts of the report, but frankly, I would have been surprised if the city had not seen earlier copies. Only nuns in Catholic schools have that kind of authority — trust me.
The final report softballed direct condemnation of Chief Rusty Thomas' leadership, but the review team couldn't hide the fact that the department's top brass had been hamstrung by parochial thinking and remained unwilling to listen to dissent, contrary opinions, and new ideas.
More firefighters, more in-depth training, new and compatible equipment purchases, new firefighting techniques, better preparation, coordination between the CFD and city building inspectors (something I assumed was already done), public forums, leather boots, radios, new research materials ... you name it, it's all in there.
At the press conference, Mayor Riley said he welcomed the conclusion of the review team and intended Charleston to be a standard-bearer.
Chief Thomas declared that he was enthusiastic about the report's conclusions, although I'm not sure being deemed as lousy at your job in print can be seen as a positive development.
Said he, "It's a new era ... I felt like this morning that our fire department took ownership of their department and they can use their voice within the community and they can feel a part of the decision-making process."
Somehow, I was not convinced of the chief's sincerity. He too eagerly employed the gibberish of management seminars. I would have believed him if he wasn't making any sense.
The report says, not in so many words, that the City of Charleston needs to rebuild its fire department from the ground up and that the process will be very expensive and take a long time.
However, wholesale change requires wholesale change, and Thomas is not the appropriate person to lead the CFD into the future.
Reading the signs on Folly Road, one can make a case that Rusty Thomas is a good guy. However, as chief, he represents a firefighting past that's no longer applicable in this day and age.
City Councilman Henry Fishburne told Channel 4 the same thing: "To continue to say that we had the finest department — that's not factual. We need to accept responsibility — the mayor, the chief, the city council."
He's right. The solution needs to be budgeted, implemented, and evaluated with stage-by-stage reviews.
I don't care how much it costs — fix it.
Let's not forget that nine men died because they couldn't breathe while doing their jobs and that their remains were charred beyond recognition. The fire department doesn't need that as a legacy.