By Richard B. Gasaway, PhD
On October 17, 2009, several hundred fire service leaders attending the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Conference in Duluth were the first to hear a presentation by Chris Villarreal, Charleston (SC) Fire Department Engine 9 captain on the first-in assignment to the Charleston Sofa Super Store fire. This incident occurred on June 17, 2007, resulting in the line-of-duty deaths of nine firefighters. By the time the fire was over, everyone from Villareal’s station was either dead or in the hospital. It’s a scenario that would be career-ending for many. In fact, Villareal said that a significant number of his fellow firefighters either retired or left the department in the aftermath of this horrific fire.
Before Villareal’s presentation, audience members were asked to set aside all they’d read and heard about the incident and to put themselves in Villarreal’s boots and vividly imagine what that day was like for him and his fellow firefighters. The room was silent, the lights were dimmed, and, through the darkness, the audience listened to the radio traffic from time of dispatch until crews were imperiled. Up came the lights and Villareal walked us through his account of the incident, using photos that had not previously been widely circulated. He used a laser to point out things that might not have been so obvious to the attendees but were important clues and cues to the events that day.
Some audience members sat motionless, stunned as they listened to his account and looked at the photos. Others, like me, took copious notes to capture the lessons to pass on to others. Following are a few of the lessons.
Lessons from the Sofa Super Store Fire
The incident was reported to the 911 dispatcher as a trash fire. The first to arrive on the scene was a chief officer whose size-up also indicated it was a trash fire. This, in turn, led the crew on Engine 9 to think they were going to be dealing with a trash fire. When you hear information over the radio, especially from reliable sources (like a dispatcher, confirmed by a chief officer), you form images in your mind of what is going on to make sense of what you are going to see before you arrive. You may even develop an action plan before you arrive based on this information. Although this seems like good planning, it can cause problems if your understanding of what is going on is flawed and your resulting game plan is flawed. As I found out in research I conducted on fireground command decision making, it is not always easy to abandon the plan you formed prior to arrival. A number of commanders told me they make plans in their head before they arrive and then put that plan into place once they are on-scene, regardless of what is really happening. It may sound strange, but it happens.
Villareal told us that when the chief officer’s size-up was “trash fire,” the crew on Engine 9 “let our guard down and took on the mindset that it was just a trash fire.” They formed a mental image in their mind of a trash fire, based on the hundreds of trash fires they had handled in the past. It’s routine. It’s a trash fire. They pulled a booster line and went to work. The problem? This wasn’t a trash fire. It was a structure fire. Villareal knew this. He told the audience he questioned the chief officer about the size-up, but still the crew pulled the booster line.
When his crew prepared for interior entry, they did pull a 1½-inch line. When they went to the top of the loading dock stairs and attempted to open the sliding door, the door track was burned and the door literally fell off the track. His crew made it inside about 10 feet. They were attacking the fire. Villareal said he thought his crew had the fire out. He even recalled telling his crew, “We got it.” Then, in an instant and without warning, the building shook and an explosive fire overcame them. Villareal remembered thinking he was going to die right there. And then it got worse. Their hoseline went limp. They didn’t know it at the time, but it had burned in half. As Villareal turned about, he saw daylight and pushed his crew toward it. Then he jumped out the opening. Amazingly, the crew grabbed another 1½-inch line and went back inside the building. As it got worse, the chief ordered the crew to exit. Then there was as report of a captain missing and, as Villareal described it, “Things went to hell in a hard cart fast.”
The area adjacent to where the crew was working was a storage area for futons. Villareal noted that while he was working in the loading dock area he had no idea what was happening at the front of the building. He said he was focused in his work and didn’t know for some time that the other crews who had entered on the front side of the building were imperiled.
Villareal’s lecture was very interactive, and the audience was given plenty of opportunity to ask questions. One of the questions addressed the decision to pull booster lines on a fire that appeared to be so large. Villareal explained that it was common practice for the Charleston (SC) Fire Department to deploy booster lines in an aggressive fast-attack mode. He described how the houses in Charleston are older and booster lines with nozzles set to deliver 23 gallons per minute were the standard tactic. “This was our norm–booster lines in fast-attack mode,” he explained. But this wasn’t a standard Charleston house fire. This was a huge warehouse complex with an incredible fire load.
The lesson here is that under stress, you will revert to your habits—the things you do over and over and over again. For Charleston, pulling booster lines had become their habit; when they arrived at this 30,000 square-foot warehouse building, members reverted to their training and their standard practice: They pulled booster lines. They had done it this way for so long without consequence they didn’t think twice about it.
Villareal also shared some very personal moments. Villareal spoke of the guilt he felt. He was the one responsible for assigning the firefighters to Ladder 10, who were among the nine who died. He felt like he should have been with them. He spoke of his use of alcohol as a coping mechanism. He spoke of the valuable help the department received from firefighters from New York, Boston, and Worchester. He spoke of the changes that have occurred since. In describing all the new procedures that have come into effect, he said, “We’ve killed a lot of trees,” holding his hand about four feet off the floor to demonstrate how high the new procedures would be if stacked. He also admitted that he’s gotten into trouble because he struggles at times to follow the new procedures, noting his old habits die hard. Indeed they do. The brain is easy to program but sometimes difficult to reprogram because you don’t have a “delete” button that you can click to forget your old ways of doing things. And, under stress, those old ways of doing things have a way of surfacing and your brain compels your body into action without much conscious thought about what is right and what is wrong. Under stress, parts of the brain tend to work on autopilot.
On the upside, Villareal said the department is doing more training than ever before. This is good because it helps the brain learn new habits. The repetition of physical actions burns those movements into your brain. It doesn’t require much conscious thought because they are so well rehearsed.
By all accounts, Chris Villarreal is a hero and a risk taker–on the fireground and in the classroom. Clearly, it was difficult for him to give this presentation. As he does it over and over again, he will become a more polished speaker, but I doubt he’ll become any more comfortable about sharing what it was like to lose nine friends.
Chief (Ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP, served 30 years in six fire and EMS organizations including 22 years as a chief officer. He has bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in finance, economics, business administration, and leadership. He is also a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and the MFRI National Fire Service Staff & Command Program. Gasaway has contributed to more than 80 journal articles, books, and book chapters on topics related to leadership and firefighter safety.