2008 Firefighter Fatalities Incidents
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2009
By Rita F. Fahy, Paul R. LeBlanc, and Joseph L. Molis
Download the full 2008 Firefighter Fatalities Report (PDF, 151 KB)
Trapped in apartment fire
At 7:16 p.m. on January 3, firefighters were called to a fire in a 25-story, high-rise apartment building of fire-resistive construction. Personnel from the first engine and ladder companies, dressed in full protective ensembles including self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), took the elevator to the 12th floor. From there, they walked up to the next level, where they connected their hose to the standpipe connection before continuing to the fire-involved apartment on the 14th floor.
2008 Firefighter Fatalities Report
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The 40-year-old officer of the engine company entered the apartment ahead of his crew through the front door, which the occupants had inadvertently propped open with a rug as they left the unit, and began searching for victims and for the fire. Shortly afterward, the rest of the engine company passed through the smoke and heat that had spread into the corridor through the apartment’s open door, advanced the hose into the unit, and joined in the search.
When the extreme heat of the fire shattered the apartment’s windows, the wind blew in and intensified the blaze. Firefighters continued working until the low-air alarms on their SCBA started sounding, and all but the officer found their way out of the apartment. The officer was later found with his face-piece off by subsequently arriving firefighters. The cause of his death was listed as burns and smoke inhalation.
Investigators determined that a 6-year-old boy who lived in the apartment had been playing with fire. Two other firefighters suffered burns during the blaze, and one suffered smoke inhalation injuries.
Electrocution on elevating platform
On January 6, a first-alarm assignment of two engines, a rescue vehicle, an elevating platform, and an acting chief was dispatched at 7:13 a.m. to a possible working fire in a three-story, wood-frame structure that had been converted from a single-family dwelling to a three-unit dwelling. They arrived at the scene in one to three minutes to find a large volume of smoke coming from the building. They entered the building and began firefighting and primary search and rescue operations.
Seven minutes after the initial dispatch, while the fire captain and a firefighter from the elevating platform were searching the basement, a second alarm was sounded, and the electric utility company was asked to respond. When the captain’s low air alarm went off, he and the firefighter left the building.
At 7:28 a.m., an engine company operating in the building asked that the roof be ventilated. Before this could be done, however, the overhead power lines had to be de-energized. The incident commander asked the representative from the electric utility, in a face-to-face conversation, to shut off power to the lines on both streets. Sometime later, the representative told the incident commander that the power had been cut. However, the only power line that was de-energized was the line from the street to the building.
In another face-to-face conversation, the incident commander told the fire captain of the elevating platform that the power had been shut down and that he wanted him to use the elevating platform to ventilate the roof. The captain and the firefighter got a power saw and climbed into the platform of the elevating platform, with the captain at the controls. As the platform approached the wires, the firefighter, who had squatted on the platform, heard an electric arcing noise and looked up to see the high-voltage overhead power line on the captain’s back. The arcing stopped as the captain fell into the platform.
Firefighters on the ground saw smoke coming from the platform, and a nearby officer helped a firefighter on the turntable lower the platform. They checked the captain’s vital signs, and, finding none, took him to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.
The current also shocked the firefighter who had been in the platform with the captain and two others standing next to the truck. They were treated for burns and released. An elderly couple died in the fire.
Struck by vehicle
During a freezing rain storm on January 22, a 24-year-old pregnant woman lost control of her car and crashed into a rocky cliff. The woman was not injured, but she wanted to make sure her unborn baby was not hurt, so she called for an ambulance at 9 a.m. The ambulance and an assistant fire chief responded to the scene.
The assistant chief conducted an initial examination, and she determined that the woman could walk to the ambulance. As they made their way along the shoulder of
the road, a passing 18-wheel tractor-trailer truck slid into the car in front it and sideswiped a parked deputy sheriff’s cruiser before hitting both the assistant fire chief and the woman. The woman died instantly, and the assistant fire chief died that evening at the hospital.
Sudden cardiac death during training
On the morning of February 21, a 48-year-old firefighter trainee participating in the fourth day of an eight-day Basic Firefighter Module 1 with Live Fire course at a state fire academy was to participate with his class in the maze drill. The drill included the following four elements: the disoriented firefighter, the skip breathing/emergency by-pass procedures, the restricted passage with SCBA, and the retreat to safe haven evolutions.
During the drill, which was conducted on the second level of the training tower, the trainees were required to wear full protective ensembles, including SCBA. When the class started at 7 a.m. at the lower level of the training tower, the students made sure their SCBA cylinders were filled to the proper level. They were then given last-minute instructions on performing the elements of the maze drill, and the drill itself started at 8 a.m.
At 9:18 a.m., it was the victim’s turn. He put on his face piece, which had been lined with wax paper to obscure his vision, and entered the maze to complete the skip breathing element. He was monitored by one of the instructors and completed the element in 18 minutes but collapsed in cardiac arrest as he left the drill area.
Instructors, EMTs, and other trainees began treatment immediately. They carried him down to the lower level, where someone noted that his pulse had stopped, and started cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He was taken by ambulance to a local hospital, where medical personnel stabilized him so he could be transported to a regional hospital. Further testing showed that he had suffered a severe hypoxic brain injury due to lack of oxygen during resuscitation efforts. His condition did not improve, and he was removed from life support the following day. He died later that day. The autopsy report showed that the firefighter had an enlarged heart and suffered from severe atherosclerotic and hypertensive cardiovascular disease.
The fire department did not require pre-placement and annual medical evaluations including medical clearance for respirator use. The state fire academy requires a medical affidavit certifying that trainees are in good physical condition, as determined by a medical examination, but neither the trainee nor the fire department submitted one in this case.
Apparatus crash while responding
On March 28, a firefighter driving a 3,000-gallon (11,360-liter) fire department water tender to a mutual-aid call died when he failed to negotiate a 90-degree right-hand turn posted for 10 miles (16 kilometers) per hour.
The firefighter was unfamiliar with the route and had to ask for directions over the radio twice. The new directions required him to return to an intersection he had already gone through, and, as he drove back on a different route and entered the turn at 9:42 a.m., the tanker’s front left tire went off the road onto the soft shoulder. The tanker continued down into the ditch, rolling over onto the driver’s side and glancing off several trees before crashing into one. The cab of the truck was crushed against the tree, pinning the driver inside.
A wrecker was called to pull the tanker away from the tree in order to extricate the firefighter. He was pulled from the cab 45 minutes later, stabilized, and flown to a trauma center, where he was pronounced dead. The cause of death was listed as blunt force trauma to the head.
As a result of this incident, NIOSH suggested that tankers be driven at a safe and reasonable speed, that firefighters be familiar with their routes, and that tankers possibly be staffed with a minimum of two firefighters. The second firefighter could act a second pair of eyes, as well as operate warning devices, check maps, and act as a spotter for backing operations. He could also assist with hose connections, portable tank deployment, and other necessary tasks.
For more information on this case, see www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face200810.html.
Struck by object at fireground
At 3:53 p.m. on April 8, a 24-year-old deputy fire chief directing operations at a plastics manufacturing facility in full protective ensemble, including SCBA, was struck by a motorized water monitor and died instantly. A firefighter standing next to him was knocked to the ground, but he was not seriously injured.
The monitor, which had been attached to the second section of an aerial ladder that had been raised 67 feet (20 meters) at a 60-degree angle, was launched from the aerial ladder when the waterway was pressurized, flying 75 feet (23 meters) before it hit the deputy chief. With its mounting bracket and 30 feet (9 meters) of aluminum pipe, the monitor weighed more than 200 pounds (91 kilograms).
The monitor, which could be attached to the tip of the aerial ladder or the second section by changing an anchor pin from one hole to another in a flat pin receiver plate, was normally attached to the second section so it would not interfere with rapid rescue attempts. During set-up operations, a probationary firefighter was sent to change the setting from the second section to the tip. After the fire, the anchor pin was found on the ground under the point where the receiver plate would normally be when the anchor pin is being changed. Investigators concluded that the pin had not been properly installed.
The fire started in an area containing wood and plastic pallets, and was caused by careless disposal of smoking materials. It grew rapidly and spread up the exterior wall, although sprinklers kept the interior of the building relatively free of fire.
For more information on this case, see www.cdc.gov/niosh/reports/face200812.html. Also see a NIOSH Safety
Advisory concerning this hazard at www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/SafetyAdvisory06242008.html.
Killed by gunshot
At 5:42 a.m. on July 21, firefighters were dispatched to the scene of a pick-up truck fire. The first apparatus to arrive was an engine company with a crew of four, followed by a rescue vehicle driven by a firefighter. The driver of the engine parked his vehicle near the pickup truck, and the crew, dressed in full personal protective ensembles, got off the engine and started setting up to extinguish the fire.
As one of the firefighters, a rookie with less than a year on the fire department, took the hose and started advancing it toward the truck, he was struck in the head and killed by a gunshot fired by a sniper from a nearby house.
Two police officers who responded were also wounded before the stand-off ended when the sniper set fire to the house, killing himself.
Struck by tree
An 18-year-old part-time wildland firefighter was fatally injured July 25 when he was struck by a tree during mop-up operations. He was one of three firefighters on scene assigned as a Class B faller, which allowed him to cut down trees 8 to 24 inches (20 to 60 centimeters) in diameter that were in danger of falling on their own.
The tree crushed his leg, and his team called for medical personnel at 1:50 p.m. Once freed and treated, the firefighter was hoisted into a United States Coast Guard helicopter for transport to the hospital. He died during the flight of cardiac arrest brought on by loss of blood.
Caught in wildland fire
On July 26, two fire personnel were scouting a wildland fire caused by lightning that they were supposed to take charge of as division supervisors the following day. As they climbed a steep incline in a rugged area of the forest, the wind unexpectedly changed, causing the fire to burn toward them rapidly.
One of the two, a 49-year-old fire chief, decided to deploy his fire shelter, an aluminized tent, on a ridge. The other, a line officer, kept going until he reached a road where he deployed his own fire shelter. The line officer escaped uninjured, but the chief died as a result of burns and smoke inhalation. No facts as to why the shelter didn’t save the chief’s life were available.
At 7:41 p.m. on August 5, a helicopter shuttling fire crews from the scene of a wildfire crashed on take off, killing the pilot and eight firefighters. The co-pilot and three other firefighters were injured.
The crews were being evacuated due to deteriorating weather conditions, and the helicopter had already made two trips, returning to the helibase to refuel. After it picked up its third load of passengers, the helicopter’s main
rotor lost power on its initial climb, and the vehicle crashed. A post-crash fire consumed the helicopter.
An investigation by the NTSB is ongoing. The reason for the loss of power was not available. For more information, visit www.ntsb.gov/ntsb/brief.asp?ev_id= 20080820X01266&key= 1.
Two contract firefighters were injured, one fatally, at 7 p.m. on August 25 when they jumped from a grader after its brakes failed and it started rolling backward. The two were in the process of improving road conditions and access for firefighters operating on a wildland fire complex.
The 77-year-old operator hit his head when he jumped and was airlifted to a hospital, where he died of his injuries 17 days later. The other firefighter was also taken to a hospital, where he was treated for an ankle injury and released.
Motor vehicle crash while responding
On November 7, a 17-year-old firefighter responding to a structure fire at 1 a.m. in his own vehicle was killed in a crash. The firefighter first went off the right side of the road after entering a curve, then overcorrected, crossing the roadway and going off the left side of the road and down an embankment. The vehicle flipped several times on the way down before crashing into an electric power box. The driver, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from the vehicle and died at the scene. Excessive speed, unfamiliarity with the road, and thick fog were cited as factors responsible for the crash.
One firefighter died and four others were injured during a fire in a vacant two-story house on November 15. The fire department received a 911 call at 5:06 a.m. from neighbors who discovered the fire in the 1,200-square-foot (111-square-meter), wood-frame dwelling, which had been boarded up. The fire was intentionally set on the second level, where a flammable liquid poured in several areas had been ignited with an open flame device.
When they arrived six minutes after the alarm, fire companies found the second level fully involved, with flames issuing from all the windows, the roof eaves, and the soffits, weakening the roof structure. Two of the engine companies began applying water on the blaze through their deck guns until they emptied their tanks. The crew of the third engine company, dressed in full protective ensembles including SCBA, entered the front door with a 1½-inch (38 millimeter) hose after prying off the boards. They made their way to the second level and were overhauling and extinguishing hot spots when the roof collapsed, trapping them.
Other firefighters managed to free them from the debris, but the 39-year-old victim, who was trapped face down under heavy wood structural members and covered with debris, was later pronounced dead at the hospital. The cause of death was listed as mechanical asphyxiation.