Charleston Sofa Super Store Tragedy as Nine Firefighters Lose their Lives - A Tactical Review

The tragic events that occurred this week at the Sofa Super Store fire in West Ashley Charleston remind us all that we must learn from past experience and take heed of the warnings issued following previous firefighter life losses. This review is not simply to critique the sofa warehouse fire itself but rather look at past experience in an effort to consider our own tactical approaches to developing fires in buildings with -

  • Large floor spaces
  • Lightweight roof trusses
  • High ceilings and/or;
  • Concealed roof spaces

There is a vast amount of documented experience of fires in these types of structure and many of these reports involve firefighter fatalities and conclude with similar conclusions and recommendations.

Previous NIOSH Recommendations - Large Store Fires

  • Ensure such buildings are frequently reviewed by firefighters with the objectives of pre-planning in mind
  • Ensure firefighters are trained to identify roof truss systems
  • Strict staffing control and fire-ground accountability is essential
  • Consider the use of thermal imaging cameras to assist size-up
  • Recognize the dangers of fire spreading unnoticed or hidden by a smoke layer, in attic spaces or under high ceilings
  • Consider vertical ventilation
  • Use extreme caution when operating above or below wide-span roof trusses
  • Fire departments should establish an SOP for operations in such structures
  • Firefighters should not be committed to working either above or below a lightweight roof truss that is exposed to fire
  • Sounds of 'popping' or 'cracking' from the ceiling area are a clear sign that the roof truss is involved and signals an immediate call for evacuation from the structure

At the Sofa Superstore fire in Charleston, firefighters faced the predicament of occupants reported by dispatch as being trapped inside and were therefore forced to commit crews to an interior approach. Under such circumstances we must consider the following -

  • Fires in structures of this nature are known to develop extremely rapidly
  • Limit the number of firefighters entering the structure
  • Ensure hose-lines and water supplies are adequate for the task
  • Be absolutely certain that the information you are providing search & rescue teams is the most up-to-date available at that time and communicate to them any changes to that information as made known
  • As soon as occupants are accounted for, consider an immediate evacuation of firefighters, and a defensive mode of attack, where the roof truss or ceiling void is exposed to fire, heat or smoke
  • Consider the safest entry point - In this case occupants were reported as trapped towards the rear of the structure but multiples of firefighters entered from the front
  • Avoid horizontal ventilation as far and as long as possible, particularly where crews are working inside - at this incident several large store-front windows were taken from the exterior by firefighters, after crews were committed inside
  • Take note of fire behavior hazard indicators such as changes in smoke color; sudden or powerful air-inflows that might indicate backdraft conditions; rising and lowering cycles in the smoke layer indicating turbulence that accompanies rapid but unseen fire development etc
  • The hazards associated with flashover; backdraft; or smoke explosion; are greater in these type of premises
  • The hazards associated with flashover - backdraft - or smoke explosion are much greater in this type of premises

Download the full Safety Bulletin issued by on fighting fires in large commercial structures -

Download this article HERE