COLUMBIA -- State regulators have conducted fewer than 60 safety inspections of South Carolina's 540 fire departments over the past 10 years, an investigation by The State newspaper has found.
Of those inspections, only six were "random" -- not prompted by a firefighter's complaint, an accident or a referral from another agency.
Fines for serious violations averaged less than $300, the study found, and often were reduced by more than half.
The deaths of nine Charleston firemen killed in a June furniture store fire have focused attention on firefighting techniques and procedures -- and the safety regulations designed to protect them.
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David Daniels, safety representative on the board of directors of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, believes U.S. firefighter deaths would drop if fire department inspections were conducted more regularly as they are in other countries, such as England.
"The U.S. loses more firefighters in the line of duty than all other countries combined," said Daniels, the fire chief in Renton, Wash. "For whatever reason, folks here have determined that fire protection is not really all that important until it happens to them."
Last year, 89 U.S. firefighters died on duty, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Jim Knight, spokesman for the state occupational safety office, defended the agency's overall inspection record of fire departments, saying there aren't enough inspectors to do regular inspections of all of the state's private and public employers.
As for the relatively low fines, Knight said his agency would rather see fire departments spend money to correct serious violations than pay fines.
"Even in the private sector, OSHA's purpose is not to put huge pots of money in the state treasury," he said.
The statistics tell the story
The newspaper's analysis of records provided by the state Office of Occupational Safety and Health found that:
• Only 37 of the state's 540 full-time and volunteer departments -- fewer than 7 percent -- were inspected between Sept. 30, 1997, and Feb. 2 of this year. Of those, 23 departments, including Columbia and Lexington County, were cited for serious violations.
• Most inspections resulted from complaints by firefighters or firefighting accidents. Neither state nor federal law requires random inspections of fire departments.
• No department was fined a total of more than $5,000 for serious violations during the 10-year period, and the average fine per violation was less than $300.
• In more than a third of the inspections resulting in fines, the fines were reduced by 60 percent, including serious violations involving the fatal injury of a Lexington County firefighter in a 2001 house fire.
The Charleston Fire Department could be eligible for such a fine reduction, even if serious safety violations are found to have led to the nine firefighters' deaths.
Firefighting groups representing South Carolina's estimated 17,000 firefighters are watching closely the state investigation into the Charleston deaths -- the largest loss of U.S. firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City.
Knight said a report on the Charleston fire should be complete by the end of September or October, though he declined to discuss specifics.
Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas declined comment on the state investigation, referring all questions to the city attorney's office.
City spokeswoman Barbara Vaughn said she couldn't discuss specifics of the investigation. But, she added, "We're cooperating with every investigation, and OSHA is just one of them."
A special committee of outside fire experts appointed by the city to review the fatal blaze recently released a preliminary list of recommendations, which the panel's leader said should be implemented quickly.
Those suggestions, such as having two firefighters outside for every two firefighters inside a burning building, could be serious violations under federal OSHA rules.
Michael Parrotta, president of the S.C. Professional Fire Fighters Association, which represents unionized firefighters in Charleston and elsewhere in the state, said he expects state regulators to find serious safety violations. He called on Thomas to resign.
"We have a chief who's so arrogant there that he's going to sit there and say, 'I'm not going to make changes,'" Parrotta said. "They need to put a chief in place who will protect his people."
'Not on the high-hazard list'
Serious violations committed by S.C. fire departments over the past decade, as defined by U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, ranged from exposed electrical cords at fire stations to a lack of manpower at fire scenes, The State's analysis found.
About 40 percent of the serious violations dealt with respirators -- the basic equipment firefighters use to breathe when inside burning buildings.
Firefighter complaints prompted nearly half of the 52 inspections of S.C. fire departments over the last 10 years, The State's analysis found.
Only six "random" inspections were done during the 10-year period. The remaining inspections were done in response to accidents or other problems, or were referrals from other agencies.
Experts say firefighters tend to make the most complaints because they typically are more knowledgeable about safety regulations than the general public. The newspaper's investigation found state regulators didn't substantiate many of the initial complaints.
Businesses that have the most accidents or work-related illnesses, such as construction, logging and certain types of manufacturing, tend to get the most attention from state regulators, Knight said.
"Fire departments ... typically are not on the high-hazard list," he said.
Neither state nor federal law requires the state OSHA office routinely inspect fire departments, Knight said. But he said the state office would have difficulty performing mandated inspections with only 29 health and safety inspectors responsible for more than 128,000 private and public establishments statewide.
"When Congress set up OSHA 30 years ago," Knight said, "they didn't give us enough inspectors or resources to put us in every private business or public-sector establishment every year or every five years."
Still, some states put more emphasis on fire department inspections.
North Carolina's occupational safety office, for example, has 114 inspectors, N.C. Department of Labor spokeswoman Heather Crews said.
In the past fiscal year alone, the N.C. agency conducted 27 inspections of fire departments statewide -- more than half the number of inspections its S.C. counterpart did over the last 10 years. Of the 27 inspections, 21, or 78 percent, were planned; 13, or about 48 percent, resulted in a violation, she said.
"Many hazardous occupations are in the public sector, including fire and police departments," Crews said, adding her office in 2001 began studying public agencies. "We knew that the overall public-sector injury and illness rate was higher than the private sector."
Knight said North Carolina's inspection program is an "anomaly" compared to most other states, noting the Tar Heel State beefed up its inspections after a 1991 chicken processing plant fire that killed 25 people.
In 23, or about 44 percent, of the 52 inspections of S.C. fire departments over the past 10 years, state regulators issued a total of 78 citations for serious violations, The State's analysis found.
The Columbia and Anderson fire departments were fined the highest amounts -- $5,000 each -- for a serious violation.
In York County, state regulators in 2000 fined the Tega Cay Volunteer Fire Department a total of $490 for two serious violations dealing with medical evaluations and written policies for respirator use.
Under state law, the maximum fine per violation generally is limited to $1,000 for public agencies as opposed to $7,000 per serious violation for private-sector employers, Knight said. However, he said his office has the option of levying a $7,000 fine against a public agency.
The state agency also can issue fines of up to $70,000 for "willful" violations, which involve the intentional disregard of regulations, Knight said.
The State's analysis found no such violations during the 10-year period. Knight said willful violations rarely have been cited, even in the larger private sector.
Over the 10-year period, the state fined fire departments a total of $22,083, or an average of about $283 per serious violation, the newspaper's analysis found.
Nationally during the same period, states imposed average penalties of about $225 per violation, according to figures from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The Columbia Fire Department received the $5,000 fine in 1999 because it did not inform a firefighter who was exposed to a car accident victim's blood of the victim's test results for infectious diseases, state records show.
It was the department's only serious citation in the last 10 years, though records listed it as a serious repeat violation.
Columbia Deputy Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said the firefighter was not infected, though he couldn't recall other specifics of the case.
During the 10-year period, the Columbia department was inspected a total of seven times -- the most for any department.
The Charleston department was inspected three times. During the last visit in February -- less than five months before the fatal June fire -- no violations were found.
In 2005, the Anderson Fire Department was fined $5,000 for not testing the air quality inside a sinkhole in Central before a firefighter attempted to enter the hole, records show.
The Lexington County Fire Service initially was fined a total of $3,240 in 2001 for seven serious violations stemming from the death of firefighter Jeff Chavis, 22. Chavis died of complications from burns suffered when a garage door collapsed on him while battling a house fire in the Windward Pointe subdivision on Lake Murray.
The fine was later reduced by 60 percent -- to $1,296 -- under the "employer penalty option," records show. Employers are eligible for the fine reduction if they didn't have any serious violations in the previous three years; they also have to conduct safety training "beyond what OSHA requires," Knight said.
Ten of the 23 fire departments cited for serious violations received the reduction, the newspaper's analysis found.