Charleston 9 Seminar Makes Impact on Firefighters in Tri-Cities

charlestonseminar3Firefighters from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia attended the ‘In Honor of the Charleston 9’ Seminar last weekend in Johnson City, TN. The seminar was hosted by the Johnson City Professional Firefighters Association Local 1791, and was presented by Dr. David Griffin of the Charleston Fire Department. Griffin, the author of In Honor of the Charleston 9: A Study of Change Following Tragedyresponded to the Sofa Super Store fire on June 18th, 2007 as acting Engineer on the first arriving Engine. The book has been featured among Amazon’s Top Sellers and can be purchased by clicking here (link).

The following summary was written by Firefighter Steven Burke to be published on The “Model City” Firefighter. Burke is a volunteer firefighter with Washington County Fire and Rescue #1 in Bristol Va.  He’s served 14 years in the fire service and works as a part time Wildland firefighter with the Virginia Dept. of Forestry.  He is also a retired combat veteran from the US Army, retiring as a Sergeant First Class after 24 years of service during which time he served as a Drill Instructor and teaching cadre with the US Army Infantry School.  He is a member of the Officers Club of the National Firefighters Endowment, a Charter member of the Valley Of The FOOLS chapter, and also teaches FF1 and 2 classes as a Certified Instructor in Virginia.

This past weekend, I, along with many other firefighters and dispatchers from East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, attended a seminar sponsored by the Johnson City Professional Firefighters Association L1791.  The seminar titled “In Honor of the Charleston 9: A Study of Change Following Tragedy”, was given by Dr. David Griffin of the Charleston Fire Dept.

charlestonseminarBefore the conference, I had read most of his book by the same name.  By the time I got fifteen or twenty minutes in, I asked myself “What am I reading? I thought this was about the Charleston fire.”   I kept reading and found that this was more than a book about the fire, even a fire that took 9 great men.  It is, as he described in the seminar, a text book.  It’s a tool for us all to use to assist our departments so we need not suffer a tragedy like Charleston did.

Dr. Griffin started out by talking about the fire and the events of the day, June 18th, 2007.  He gave us a firsthand perspective of what happened and I’ll say that I heard things that I never knew from other stories about the fire.  He went on to talk about some of the issues that arose during that incident and he spoke about the state of how the Charleston Fire Dept. operated.  He spoke, as a matter of fact, about the good and bad things that were the standard there.  I was a little shocked that he could speak about the problems so open, honestly, and explained them in a fashion so that it didn’t come across as him bashing the department.  It was how they did business and had for many years. It was the norm, and for many of us, that’s just how it’s done, like many departments here and across the country.  They ran off of luck until their luck ran out.

charlestonseminar1He spoke of the mentality of the Charleston firefighter and their aggressive attitude was to “get in and put the fire out”. This may seem acceptable to some on the surface.  He spoke of disregarding safety practices like 2 in 2 out, using booster lines on the interior, and not going on air until deep inside the structure.  He spoke of the minimum training required and the attitude of outside training at the department.  He even stated that if you went outside the department for more advanced training opportunities, it was frowned upon.  I could feel myself get angry as he spoke.  I’ve been there and hearing others in attendance, they have to.  Maybe not to the extent of Charleston but some of the same attitudes prevail in the fire service still today.  That brings us back to why he built the seminar and conducted the study:  to give us the tools to ensure it never happens again.  We can now utilize his research to help determine how we are doing as an organization.

The resistance to change was great.  This historic department had been doing business this way for decades.  They were professionals at it and when a panel of outsiders comes in to tell you you’re unsafe and not following the recognized standards and practices, of course you’re going to resist.  As the changes were forced, the training increased.  Soon, they were becoming one of the premier fire departments.  They had changed the way they operated and were still putting the fires out, but now safer than ever.  He spoke of how even the media picked up on it and they were getting great write-ups in the news for the first time in years.  It was a win for all.

Dr. Griffin spoke about the toll it took on him personally and the battle he fought after the fire.  He talked about how he made it out and made it his mission to try and understand. He decided to study what happened in Charleston so he could in turn help others in the fire service realize it before it was too late.

charlestonseminar2In one part of the seminar, he spoke about how accidents don’t just happen.  They are assembled in the systems we make.  Our actions along the way build the system that will inevitably end in an accident.  One example is that the firefighter asks if they could train and the Captain says he’s tired, which in turn lead to them not training today.  That one day of not training or resisting change will likely not have an immediate affect; however, you are assembling conditions that go unnoticed and could now lead to catastrophic results.  By missing a mayday class one day, the result could be that three months later you forget what to do in a mayday situation.  Now, you are risking your life along with others due to not training.  Couldn’t happen?  On the day of the Super Sofa Store Fire only one MAYDAY was called. That single MAYDAY was a firefighter who was also a volunteer outside Charleston and had trained on Mayday with his volunteer department.

Attending the seminar is a must to get the full impact.  It will give you the story of how it happened and everything that occurred along the way to get Dr. Griffin and the Charleston Fire Department to where they are today.   Dr. Griffin is an amazing lecturer and you can feel his passion for the job and for what he is doing just by hearing him speak.  He told the story of the research and allowed us in class to exercise a little and answer some of those questions about our own organizations.

Here are some of the questions that were asked of us and that we discussed in class:

  1. How does your department discuss mistakes to allow its members and the fire service to learn from them?
  2. How does your department utilize committees to support the direction of the department?
  3. How does your department ensure that all employees are aware of lessons learned from previous emergency and training incidents?
  4. How have you learned and improved as a firefighter over the last five years?
  5. How has the leadership of your department changed over the last five years?

I think at first, we were not being that truthful in the critiquing of our organizations. We want to say that we are “doing ok” and maybe we need a “little improvement”.  If  you really think about the question and think back, are we doing it justice?  For all of those who love to say “Everyone Goes Home,” part of the life safety initiative 13 is the “After Action Review” Click this link to view a flyer that the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation has developed:

How have you improved over the last five years?  This is not just for the rookies or the 3 to 5 year firefighters.  How have you, as a 20 to 30 year veteran, improved over the last five years?  Have you grown or stagnated?  What about your department?  Has it opened up to more opportunities?  Do they truly take care of you?  Will they ensure your safety?  Have they taken a down turn?

These are the questions you should be asking yourself….

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