Charleston’s deadly Sofa Super Store blaze already is one of the most studied fires in recent history, and experts hope its lessons will help reverse a steady parade of firefighter deaths across the nation.
Despite improvements in training, equipment and tactics, about 100 firefighters die on duty each year in the United States.
South Carolina leads the country in firefighter deaths this year, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the nation’s 114 on-duty fatalities. Nine men died in the June 18 fire in Charleston; two more died in vehicle crashes in other communities.
Chief Ron Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, said heart attacks traditionally have been the leading cause of on-duty deaths. But the fire service has seen a noticeable increase this year in the number of firefighters killed while battling blazes.
Also disturbing is an increase in fires that claim multiple lives, like the sofa store blaze, he said. Texas, California, New York and Massachusetts also recorded multiple deaths in single incidents.
Gordon Routley, who leads a panel of consultants studying the sofa store blaze and the Charleston Fire Department, said firefighting will always carry inherent risks, but many of these deaths are preventable. “These are particularly frustrating. We are not inventing new ways to kill firefighters. We keep doing it the same way,” he said.