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Griffin shares Charleston fire story through training

Morris Fire Chief Dave Dybdal with Dr. David Griffin. Griffin is a Charleston firefighter and author of “In Honor of The Charleston 9: A Study of Change Following Tragedy" was in Morris to train firefighters March 9. Submitted photo 1 / 2
The March audience at the training for firefighters conducted by Dr. David Griffin. Submitted photo2 / 2

What Dr. David Griffin can't forget from the June 18, 2007, warehouse fire that killed nine Charleston, South Carolina, firefighters, he's using to help other firefighters remember.

Griffin said he wants firefighters to remember that firefighting is a profession. And if firefighters don't have the proper training and protocol in their profession, the danger and the risk greatly increase, Griffin said.

Griffin was the first fire engineer on the scene of the The Sofa Super Store warehouse fire. He was in Morris March 9 to share his story and lead a several hour training for firefighters. Griffin is also the author of "In Honor of The Charleston 9: A Study of Change Following Tragedy."

Media reports of the fire said the warehouse roof collapsed and oxygen had quickly spread through the building feeding the flames. It was the worst firefighter casualty incident since Sept. 11, 2001.

Michael A. Parrotta, the president of the South Carolina Professional Firefighters Association, said in a June 20, 2007, story in the New York Times, the problem stemmed from the state's policies, not the performance of the firefighters.

"I don't enjoy teaching this class," Griffin said. He teaches the class about 100 to 125 times a year. With each class, "I relive this event," Griffin said of the Charleston fire.

But, "I'm cognizant that what I'm doing is much bigger than me," Griffin said.

"If (firefighters) can learn from our mistakes, that's what motivates me," Griffin said.

He teaches firefighters about protocol, about understanding the environments they will deal with in different fires and about how to evaluate the risks versus reward when battling any fire.

When Morris Fire Chief Dave Dybdal heard Griffin speak at a chiefs' conference he was reminded of the importance of training and that even large departments can make mistakes.

"I wanted everyone to learn from his message, that 'You don't know what you don't know,'" Dybdal said. "We think we are doing the right thing when the tones go off, you can breath heavy and yell loud, but that just brings more chaos to the scene." Proper training is needed because without it there could be disaster, Dybdal said.

Griffin's class was in the Edson Auditorium on the University of Minnesota, Morris campus. It's an example of how structures and furnishings have changed over the years and a reason why regular training and education is important, Griffin said.

"What you see in here is not natural fiber," Griffin said of the Edson Auditorium seats. Fiber that is not natural burns quicker and has faster flashpoints than natural fibers, Griffin said.

Firefighters must also evaluate the risk versus the reward when battling any fire, Griffin said. Is the fire too dangerous with too much risk for firefighters to save the structure, is a question that must be asked, Griffin said.

"There will be times when you need to slow down and think about what you are doing," Griffin said. "If the reward is not there, if nobody is in (the building)."

Griffin said firefighter must also respond with an almost unconscious competence that happens when "they know what they are doing because they have drilled so much."

Dybdal said safer implementation is why his department completes regular training.

"With a regular dose of practical training, you can eliminate these types of dangerous outcomes that all fire departments could see at any time of the day," Dybdal said.

Griffin's audience in Morris included mostly volunteer firefighters such as those on the Morris department. "That's called high risk, low frequency," Griffin said of volunteer firefighters. Volunteers respond to fires but not at the rate to paid firefighters in larger communities, Griffin said.

Training is critical for volunteer firefighters, Griffin said.

Volunteer firefighters will also need to respond to fires with volunteers from nearby departments in mutual aid calls.

Those departments should be training together and training in the same drills so that responses are similar for each department, Griffin said.

Griffin said the training is similar to the standard operating procedures used by different engine departments in cities. Charleston has five different engines and all engine companies train the same exact way because they may respond to the same incident, Griffin said.

Dybdal said firefighters responded favorably to Griffin's presentation. "I had a lot of people call me and text me the following day saying it was one of the best programs they have attended," Dybdal said.

Griffin not only shares the training, he practices it regularly as a firefighter in Charleston. He works a 24-hours on shift with 48 hours off. When he left Morris March 9, he would be back in Charleston March 10.