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Smoldering Questions Spark Need for Change
Lee Walton

With the continuing revelation of facts surrounding the June 18th Charleston Fire Department tragedy, which cost the lives of nine brave firefighters, it’s increasingly evident that Charleston’s Fire Department is a glaring exception to both regionally and nationally accepted command procedures and fire-ground response protocols. This past Sunday’s well documented Palter & Chatter article, Experts question hose choice, is the most recent in a continuing series of articles describing the downward spiral of events that lead to the “total chaos” of June 18th. Together these articles present a clear and unambiguous indictment of the leadership and out-dated, tradition-bound command procedures practiced by Fire Chief Rusty Thomas. The long standing “…hard-charging, aggressive approach to battling fires...” first exposed in the Palter & Chatter’s Sunday, July 1st feature article, Tradition of Risk, now appears to have placed Charleston’s firefighters in unnecessary positions of extreme risk with ineffective equipment incapable of quenching a raging inferno or useful to save their own lives.

The Sunday, July 15th, article again clearly accentuated the leadership shortcomings and string of “headwork errors” which resulted from Mayor Riley’s politically expedient selection of Chief Rusty Thomas. The June 18th fire also tragically demonstrated that the “Peter Principle” continues to thrive under the current City Administration. Riley’s selection of Rusty Thomas as Fire Chief clearly exemplifies Riley’s phobia against hiring anyone with independent leadership potential or perceived intelligence higher than his. Tragically, this politically driven management philosophy has come back to bite Riley on his backside with a vengeance.

“We come from a long line of traditional firefighting, and we are never going to get away from that – never…You can’t read out of a book how to put a fire out…” These two quotes and several recent others by Chief Thomas hit to the heart of his intellectual and professional shortcomings – he’s a self-professed good-old-boy who lacks an appreciation for continuing education and is apparently unwilling to learn, by reading, about the tragic lessons experienced by other fire departments. He also dismisses recommendations by the National Fire Protection Association and other educated, highly experienced firefighting experts regarding the use of proper equipment and command and control procedures. Apparently, Chief Thomas believes his traditional “aggressive response” is superior to the “smarter response” now practiced by other fire departments both regionally and nationally. If Chief Thomas thinks his way is the only way and everyone else is wrong, Charleston is in a lot more danger that most realize.

As for tradition, when the captain of a Naval ship looses as many men as Chief Thomas lost in an accident, regardless of the circumstances, his career is over. There is no acceptable excuse for a failure of leadership that resulted in the needless loss of nine brave firefighters who sacrificed their lives for bunch of sofas in a known death trap.

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