Experts debate whether hoses used on S.C. Super Store were appropriate

By Ron Menchaca and Glenn Smith
The Post and Courier
Copyright 2007 Post and Courier
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News

CHARLESTON, S.C. — When photos and video footage of the June 18 Sofa Super Store fire beamed around the world, some firefighters and fire safety experts were troubled by what they saw: small red hoses snaking through the front door of the burning furniture store.

These rubber hoses, known as booster lines, were commonplace on fire trucks 20 years ago. They have since been phased out in many departments because they proved ineffective at fighting structure fires and can place firefighters at risk. Fire experts say the lines don't put out enough water to tackle a large blaze or protect firefighters from approaching flames. Their use for snuffing out garbage fires and other small tasks has earned them the nickname "trash lines."

The tradition-bound Charleston Fire Department, which lost nine firefighters in the sofa store blaze, still relies on boosters as its initial attack lines for a variety of fires. While many other departments have done away with these red lines altogether, the hard-charging Charleston department outfits its trucks to carry extra booster lines.

Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said booster lines allow firefighters to get water on a blaze quickly, and they cause less damage to property than larger hoses with heavier flow.

And he maintained that booster lines were not used to fight fire at the sofa store blaze; firefighters eager to chip in likely grabbed whatever hose they could find to spray water on the burning building after interior fire crews had evacuated, he said. Larger hoses were used as the initial and primary attack lines to battle the blaze, he said.

"I don't want nobody to think that the Charleston Fire Department put boosters on the Sofa Super Store to put fire out at the start of the fire," Thomas said. "We did not."

Several photos taken at the fire show firefighters using red booster lines to spray water on the burning building. Photos and video from the sofa store fire also show at least two booster lines winding into the building, and a third snaking toward the area where the fire started on the side of the store.

Thomas, who has said he assumed command of the scene when he arrived at the blaze, said he doesn't know when crews pulled the booster lines that night or why the lines were in the building. But he said he doubts that any of the red lines extended more than 15 feet into the store, and he insists none were used to fight the blaze inside.

Many photos also show firefighters battling the blaze with much larger hoses, which are standard on structure fires; but the mere presence of booster lines at the scene of such a large-scale commercial blaze baffled some in the firefighting profession.

David Grahl is a district chief with Dayton (Ohio) Fire Department, which is roughly the same size as Charleston's department. His department phased out booster lines more than 15 years ago, he said. He described them as "glorified garden hoses" and said he was shocked to see them at the scene of the fire.

"You wouldn't send soldiers into battle with BB guns. It puts the firefighters in danger because they have inadequate firepower at hand."

Grahl said he does not speak for his department; he offered his opinion based on his more than 30 years in the fire service.

Jamy Cote is a former Charleston firefighter with a two-year degree in fire science and more than 10 years' firefighting experience here and in other departments. He said he left the Charleston Fire Department last year after his suggestions for safety upgrades earned him a cold shoulder from colleagues. He said it would not have been unusual for firefighters to have made their initial attack on the sofa store with the smaller booster lines, particularly if the blaze was small when they arrived.

The booster "is usually the first to be pulled off the truck," he said. "Big fire, small fire, it's so ingrained to pull the booster."

Cote said Charleston firefighters have long favored the booster lines for their light weight and maneuverability. One firefighter can grab the line, dash into a building and get water quickly on a blaze, an approach that fits squarely with the department's aggressive style, he said.

He said his main concern with using booster lines is that firefighters can find themselves outgunned in a growing fire.

"It wasn't necessarily a horrible practice, but it has to be a smart one," Cote said. "If the fire is too hot, then you're not going to have enough water there to do anything."

Thomas said he leaves it up to his captains to decide when and whether it's appropriate to pull a booster line on a fire, and whether it should be used in combination with larger hoses. Booster lines remain valuable tools for quick attacks and are mainly used by the department to put out fires in cars, kitchens and, in some cases, bedrooms, he said.

"The booster has its place in the Charleston Fire Department, and it's up to our captains on the truck to pull whatever size hose they think is needed to put the fire out," Thomas said. "That's the way we do it."

Some fire departments don't even carry booster lines on their trucks, to avoid the possibility that they will be pulled in the wrong situation, placing firefighters in jeopardy. Departments that still carry them generally use booster lines for small tasks such as extinguishing grass fires, washing off a roadway after a car accident or smothering a trash fire, experts said.

Booster lines are pulled from reels and draw water from large tanks contained within the fire truck. Their nozzles are typically an inch in diameter and can spray 30 to 60 gallons of water per minute. Larger hoses, called attack lines, can spray 150 gallons per minute or more, which many fire safety experts say is the minimum needed for attacking a structure fire.

Using booster lines can be risky because they leave little room for error when matched against today's fires, which burn hotter because of an abundance of man-made combustible materials.

If firefighters are unable to quell a small fire using a booster line, the fire hose can quickly become powerless against a growing fire, allowing it to spread. Firefighters also need enough water to protect themselves from flames.

For just those reasons, the Mount Pleasant Fire Department stopped widespread use of booster lines 15 years ago, but keeps one around for the occasional grass fire. Isle of Palms firefighters stopped using booster lines in the 1980s, and the Greenville Fire Department followed suit a decade later. Savannah firefighters keep some booster lines on reserve trucks, but they are mainly used for washing off equipment or hosing off fluids.

Myrtle Beach Fire Chief Alvin Payne, a 30-year veteran of the fire service, isn't ready to abandon these small hoses. He said booster lines have their place, but he won't allow his firefighters to use them on a burning building. "We don't use them for structure fires. Whenever you are attacking a structure fire, you want to protect your personnel, and a booster line doesn't put out enough flow to protect personnel."

Fire experts have raised similar safety concerns. A 2001 journal article published by the National Fire Protection Association concluded that booster lines "offer little chance of extinguishment and often place firefighters in danger."

The paper's authors said arguments that booster lines might help preserve property because of their low water flow don't hold up to scrutiny. "A higher rate of flow, properly applied, results in quick extinguishment and less water damage. Conversely, water applied through small, inadequate attack lines results in more water, fire and smoke damage and often places firefighters and occupants in danger."

One of the paper's authors, Russ Sanders, is a former chief of the Louisville Fire Department in Kentucky and now works for the National Fire Protection Association, the organization that writes federal firefighting safety guidelines.

He is the co-author of "Structural Fire Fighting," a textbook published in 2000 that is widely used and cited in the fire service.

Sanders said he has no direct knowledge of the Charleston fire and spoke only in general terms about the use of booster lines in firefighting. "We don't feel it is ever appropriate to attack an interior structure fire with a booster line. They are too dangerous."

Still, Columbia Fire Chief Bradley Anderson said booster lines remain popular among some of his firefighters because of their utility. The department had been moving away from buying trucks with booster reels but has since gone back to ordering them because firefighters prefer them for dousing nuisance blazes.

"We use them for overhaul at the end of fires to put out hot spots," Anderson said. "We would not use them to attack a fire because of their low flow."

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