Published on July 1, 2017.

Selected 2016 On-Duty Firefighter Fatality Incidents

These incident summaries illustrate some of the issues and concerns in firefighter safety and health. When there is an NFPA standard applicable to an incident, that document is identified. By doing so, NFPA is not intending to assert causation, assign responsibility, or offer an opinion as to compliance with those standards. The intent is to provide a reference to inform and educate readers about specific topics. Free access to all NFPA standards is available online.

SUICIDE BY GUNSHOT

On January 7, an on-duty, 51-year-old fire chief with 34 years of service drove his department vehicle alone to a secluded rural area. An investigation revealed that he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. A note was left, but its contents were not revealed.

Applicable standard: NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, 2013 edition, Chapter 11.

SHOT RESPONDING TO CALL

On January 22 at 5 a.m., the dispatch center received a 911 call for a person suffering from a seizure, and fire companies were immediately dispatched. Snowfall slowed the response, and the first responder on the scene was a 29-year-old fire lieutenant with nine years of service who responded from home. He entered the residence and was escorted by the wife of the seizure victim to their bedroom. As the lieutenant stood in the doorway assessing the situation, the seizure victim drew a .40 caliber handgun and shot the lieutenant five times. A neighbor on the premises notified the dispatch center that the lieutenant had been shot and the dispatcher instructed the caller to start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

The dispatcher then warned the remaining responding personnel to stay outside the building until it was secured by police. As soon as it was secured, an advanced life support unit made up of a paramedic, an emergency medical technician, and a firefighter took over CPR on the lieutenant and initiated the use of a bag valve mask for oxygenation which they continued until they were at the hospital. They also administered two intravenous lines and an electrocardiogram. The lieutenant was transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead a short time later.

According to a toxicology report, the shooter, who was charged with manslaughter, was under the influence of a high level of cocaine. The shooter told investigators the reason he shot the fire lieutenant was that he entered the house without identifying himself or wearing a uniform.

CRASH DURING RESPONSE

On March 12 at 9:30 a.m., fire dispatch received a mutual aid request for assistance at a fire in a two-story, wood-frame, single-family dwelling.

A 68-year-old firefighter, the sole occupant of a mobile air unit, sustained fatal injuries when the truck he was driving left the road at an intersection for unknown reasons. After striking the curb and a street sign, the vehicle continued traveling close to 700 feet (213 meters) before stopping on an embankment in a field along a drainage ditch.

An off-duty nurse and two civilians provided aid before emergency medical service (EMS) personnel arrived at the scene. The firefighter was transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead a short time later. The death was determined to be due to blunt force trauma to the chest.

Applicable standards: NFPA 1002, Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, 2017 edition, Section 4.3; NFPA 1451, Fire and Emergency Service Vehicle Operations Training Program, 2013 edition.

ASPHYXIATED IN OXYGEN-DEPLETED ENVIRONMENT

On March 20, a 33-year-old member of a steel plant’s industrial fire brigade was assigned the monthly duty of inspecting the fire extinguishers throughout the plant. The fire technician had six months of experience with the fire brigade, 11 years with a local fire department, and had been appointed to a position as a part-time police officer.

At 4 p.m., a plant security team found the technician deceased in a fifth-floor elevator motor room, an area not considered dangerous. They exited the room before becoming asphyxiated from a nitrogen-enriched atmosphere that created an immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) environment. They returned after donning self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and removed the fire technician from the room.

An investigation later found that a leak in the nitrogen distribution system had filled the elevator motor room with nitrogen, displacing the oxygen and creating the IDLH atmosphere. Nitrogen is an odorless, colorless, tasteless, mostly inert diatomic gas, but it can also be deadly. It can act as an asphyxiant and kill an individual in less than 40 seconds. It was used at this plant in the steel refining process to open and close valves for pneumatic equipment and to cool equipment.

The investigation also determined that the fire technician entered the IDLH environment unknowingly. He collapsed and died after briefly breathing the nitrogen-enriched atmosphere. Company employees and firefighters who responded took readings in the room where the technician was found and detected oxygen levels below 4 percent; suffocation can occur at just under a 19 percent oxygen level. The company discontinued the use of nitrogen as a result of the fatality. The cause of death was asphyxiation by nitrogen.

Applicable standards: NFPA 1072, Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Emergency Response Personnel Professional Qualifications, 2017 edition, Chapter 4; NFPA 1081, Industrial Fire Brigade Member Professional Qualifications, 2012 edition; NFPA 472, Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials/Weapons of Mass Destruction Incidents, 2013 edition, Chapter 4.

RUN OVER BY APPARATUS

On March 20 at 3:30 p.m., a neighbor called 911 two minutes after detecting a fire in a single-family dwelling. The one-story building of wood-frame construction had a ground-floor area of 600 square feet (56 square meters). A large amount of fire was showing on the arrival of the first fire company. The cause of the fire was deemed unintentional but was classified as undetermined.

A 42-year-old firefighter with six years of service, dressed in a personal protective ensemble (PPE) with the exception of an SCBA, either attempted to jump onto the back step of the engine or fell from the engine as the apparatus was backing up to a hydrant, and became tangled in the hose. The driver of the engine, not seeing the firefighter fall, continued to back up, driving over him and causing fatal crushing injuries. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Applicable standards: NFPA 1002, Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, 2017 edition, Section 4.3; NFPA 1001, Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications, 2013 edition, Section 5.3.2.

SUDDEN CARDIAC DEATH DURING OVERHAUL

On April 16 at 11:30 p.m., a 911 call sent the fire department to a single-family dwelling fire. The building covered 1,500 square feet (144 square meters) of ground-floor area. Firefighters encountered a large amount of fire in the structure on arrival. After a short time, the fire was knocked down and under control.

A 57-year-old fire lieutenant with 30 years of service, dressed in protective clothing but without his SCBA, entered the building with his company and began overhauling. A short time later, he collapsed. He was carried outside and CPR was immediately performed by on-scene personnel. He was transported to the hospital where he died. The cause of death was determined as sudden cardiac arrest stemming from cardiovascular disease.

The cause of the fire was a malfunctioning electrical fan in a first-floor bedroom. Two adults and four children escaped even though the house was not equipped with smoke alarms.

Applicable standards: NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, 2013 edition, Section 8.5; NFPA 1582, Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments, 2013 edition, Chapter 7.

BLUNT FORCE TRAUMA IN WATERCRAFT TRAINING

On June 14 at 10:45 a.m., two on-duty firefighters were participating in an unsupervised rescue watercraft training session. One firefighter operated a rescue personal watercraft (PWC); the other, a 63-year-old firefighter with 21 years of service, rode on a personal watercraft sled attached to the PWC.

The firefighters were performing their practice maneuvers approximately 250 yards (228 meters) off shore during a high surf advisory when the operator of the PWC looked back after going over a wave and saw the other firefighter floating unconscious in the water. The unconscious firefighter was wearing an approved life vest and helmet at the time. The PWC operator jumped in the water as did others in the area, including an off-duty firefighter, to rescue the unconscious firefighter. The firefighter was brought to shore where paramedics treated him and transported him to the hospital. The firefighter died two days later from blunt force trauma to the head and neck with cervical vertebrae fractures and a spinal cord injury.

Applicable standards: NFPA 1006, Technical Rescuer Professional Qualifications, 2017 edition, Chapter 20; NFPA 1405, Guide for Land-Based Fire Departments That Respond to Marine Vessel Fires, 2016 edition.

APPARATUS CRASH IN MAINTENANCE TEST

On July 7, a single-vehicle crash occurred when a firefighter in charge of apparatus maintenance was test driving a mobile water supply apparatus before a weekly drill/meeting. The victim was 50 years old and had three years of service.

It was a clear, dry day. Three witnesses who observed the crash reported that there were no other vehicles on the highway. Speed did not appear to be a factor. The firefighter was negotiating a curve when he went off the right side of the road and traveled 142 feet (44 meters) before getting back on the road. He overcorrected his steering and the tanker flipped three times, coming to a stop off the road on the other side of the highway. The tanker came to rest on the driver’s side. The firefighter, who was wearing a shoulder/lap seat belt, remained in his seat but suffered massive head trauma and was pronounced dead at the scene.

A check of the firefighter’s cell phone showed he was texting at the time of the crash.

Applicable standards: NFPA 1002, Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, 2017 edition; NFPA 1451, Fire and Emergency Service Vehicle Operations Training Program, 2013 edition; NFPA 1071, Emergency Vehicle Technician Professional Qualifications, 2016 edition.

BULLDOZER CRASH DURING WILDLAND FIREFIGHTING

On July 22 at 8:48 a.m., a passerby observed a wildland fire burning in a state park and called 911 to report the fire. The fire had consumed 23,500 acres (9,500 hectares) up to July 26 at 7 p.m., when a bulldozer operator came on duty.

The bulldozer operator had consulted with the operator he relieved and the crew strike team leader on a way to create a dozer line around a blockage at the fork in the road where an engine company had established a hose lay for suppression.

At 11 p.m., after deciding where to make the dozer line, the operator drove the bulldozer toward the area. He first built a berm to protect the hose lay. Unable to go around the engine company, he backed the dozer toward the edge of the road. The operator, not seat belted in, continued to back the dozer until it reached its tipping point. The dozer rolled over and down an 82 percent slope, ejecting and pinning the operator. A paramedic who was nearby went to the operator and pronounced him dead.

FATAL INJURIES SUFFERED IN HOUSE EXPLOSION

On September 27 at 6:30 a.m., a neighbor called 911 to report the smell of natural gas coming from a nearby single-family dwelling. The building, a two-story structure of ordinary construction, covered 800 square feet (74 square meters) of floor area. Arriving fire companies were greeted with a strong odor of mercaptan, a harmless, non-toxic, colorless gas with a pungent odor similar to rotten eggs. It is mixed with the odorless natural gas to warn of, or trace, gas leaks. They traced the leak to the basement. Twenty minutes after arrival, firefighters shut the gas off.

The second level of the dwelling was being used as an illegal marijuana growing operation and was well-sealed, providing little ventilation. A powerful explosion originated in the rear second-level bedroom approximately one hour after the initial alarm. The explosion reduced the house to rubble, sending portions of the roof flying through the air. One such section struck a battalion fire chief who was directing operations from the middle of the street. He was taken directly to a hospital where he died from his traumatic injuries. Six other firefighters sustained non-fatal injuries.

Applicable standard: NFPA 1001, Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications, 2013 edition, Chapter 5.

TRAUMA SUSTAINED IN FALL IN PREPARATION TO RESPOND

On September 19 at 10 a.m., the fire department received an alarm to assist police gain entrance to a building that had been burglarized.

A 61-year-old firefighter with 43 years of service was preparing to respond to the call from his home when he tripped and fell, severely injuring himself. His wife called the fire station after firefighters returned from the call and notified the fire chief what had occurred.

The fire chief and firefighters responded to the firefighter’s house where they found him still on the floor. They provided first aid and an ambulance transported the firefighter to the hospital.

The following day, the injured firefighter suffered a heart attack but was resuscitated. The day after that, at 4:50 a.m., he was pronounced dead at the hospital. The death certificate listed the nature of death as blunt force trauma to the trunk of his body.

STRUCK BY TREE LIMB DURING BRUSH FIRE

On October 29, a fire company was dispatched to a brush fire. During extinguishment, the apparatus was struck by a falling snag (tree limb) that broke into two pieces, one hitting the apparatus and the other hitting and injuring a 41-year-old firefighter.

The firefighter was pulling hose from the rear of a brush mini pumper when he was struck. He received medical attention immediately and was airlifted to a hospital.

On November 17, he died from complications of blunt force traumatic injuries to his head.

Applicable standards: NFPA 1002, Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, 2017 edition; NFPA 1051, Wildland Firefighting Personnel Professional Qualifications, 2016 edition.

SUDDEN CARDIAC DEATH FOLLOWING VEHICLE FIRE

On November 7 at 11:55 p.m., the fire department was called for a fire in a tractor-trailer on an interstate highway.

Shortly after the fire was extinguished, as the fire chief talked with a state police officer and the driver of the truck at the command post, he collapsed and fell to the ground, unresponsive. The firefighters and other first responders on scene performed CPR before the chief was transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. The nature of death was listed as a heart attack.

Applicable standard: NFPA 1582, Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments, 2013 edition, Chapter 7.

CRASH DURING RESPONSE TO EMS CALL

On December 19 at 5 p.m., a 43-year-old firefighter with one year of service was responding to an EMS call in his pickup truck when he lost control of the vehicle, went left of the road’s dividing line, overcorrected, then struck a guard rail, causing the truck to flip over and eject him. He was not wearing his seat belt at the time of the crash.

He was transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Top Photograph: William Bretzger/The News Journal