2009 Firefighter Fatalities Incidents
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2010
By Rita F. Fahy, Paul R. LeBlanc, and Joseph L. Molis
Download the full 2009 Firefighter Fatalities Report (PDF, 267 KB)
Crash due to brake failure
A 1995 aerial ladder apparatus was involved in a single-vehicle crash that killed the officer and injured three firefighters. The ladder company was returning to the fire station from a medical call, and as they started down a long, steep hill, the vehicle’s brake system failed.
The apparatus quickly gained speed as it descended. Deliberately crashing into parked vehicles or buildings on the hill was not possible because there were pedestrians on the sidewalks on both sides of the street. The officer turned on the siren and operated the air horn as they approached a T-shaped intersection at the bottom of the hill. The intersecting street was a main street usually busy with traffic and used by the public transit authority’s trolleys. There was no activity on the street as the apparatus went through the intersection. The truck crashed into a parked vehicle, then knocked down a section of brick wall between two brick stanchions just far enough apart for the apparatus to pass between them. The truck finally crashed into a high-rise apartment building that housed an after-school computer learning center on the ground floor.
One of the firefighters riding in the back seat used a portable radio to notify fire dispatch of the crash, and fire companies and medical personnel were immediately sent to the scene. The 52-year-old fire lieutenant died on the scene from blunt force trauma to the head. A nurse going to work stopped and rendered aid and is credited with saving the 24-year-old driver’s life. He had received severe lacerations to the head and had to be extricated. One of the firefighters sitting in the rear jump seat sustained a fractured leg, and the other firefighter suffered severe sprains to his neck. Four children and one adult from the learning center were transported to local hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries. The only occupant of the apparatus wearing a seatbelt was the firefighter in the rear seat behind the driver, who buckled his seatbelt just before the collision.
Improper maintenance of the apparatus was cited as a cause of the brake failure. As a result of the crash, the fleet maintenance division was reorganized.
See NIOSH’s report at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face200905.html.
Contact with power line
At 2:30 a.m., a pick-up truck with two occupants crashed, causing a power line to come down and others to hang above the ground. A sheriff’s deputy witnessed the crash and reported it by radio. He instructed the occupants to stay in the vehicle because of the downed power lines. When the initial dispatch was issued to the fire and EMS responders on a different frequency, power lines were not mentioned.
The deputy escorted the first arriving firefighter along the only safe route to the truck. Additional deputies arrived and blocked the approaches to the scene. In total, eight firefighters, two EMS personnel, and four deputy sheriffs were on scene. Deputies attempted to warn arriving personnel to go around and not under the power lines. Interviews established that not everyone received or complied with warnings. A 60-year-old fire captain entered the scene from the wrong side. He brought medical equipment requested by personnel working on the crash victims. After dropping off the equipment, he started walking back up an embankment to his apparatus. As he approached the down and hanging lines, he tried to walk through them. He lost his footing and fell onto the live power lines hanging four to five feet above the roadway and was electrocuted. An additional ALS (Advanced Life Support) ambulance was summoned to the scene and on its arrival, the crew found the captain’s injuries were fatal.
An investigation into the incident highlighted two findings. First, there was no incident command, and on-scene agencies operated independently and without effective coordination. Second, information regarding the downed power lines and the safety warnings was not immediately communicated by dispatch to the emergency responders. The use of different radio frequencies by the fire department and the deputy sheriffs also complicated communications.
Fall during training
Two firefighters participating in a training exercise died when they fell 83 feet (25 meters) from the platform of a new elevated platform apparatus. The purpose of the training session was to familiarize the firefighters with the 95-foot (29-meter) mid-mount aerial platform before it was placed in service. The exercise consisted of setting up the apparatus for operation by extending and setting the stabilizers, leveling the aerial platform, and raising the platform to the roof of an eight-story building.
Two groups operated the aerial platform without difficulty. The third and final group of firefighters to perform the exercise consisted of four firefighters dressed in station uniforms. They set up the apparatus and entered the bucket. No ladder belts were used. The operator raised the platform to the roof and observed the inclinometer read 71 degrees as he directed the platform over the roof. He instructed the other three firefighters to stay in the bucket because he thought it was too high to exit safely. As he lowered the platform, firefighters on the ground and the firefighter in the platform heard a scraping sound followed by a bang. The operator observed the bucket resting on the top of the parapet wall and instructed the firefighters again to stay in the bucket until he raised it off the wall. He attempted to raise and move the platform but it would not move. Investigators would learn later that a lifting eye on the underside of the bucket was caught on the inner surface of the parapet wall. He attempted to move the bucket a second and third time.
On the third try, the top inside of the parapet wall broke without warning, causing the platform to lurch away from the building and then sway violently. The force of the movement caused one victim to be ejected through the door on the right side of the bucket and the second victim to be ejected through the door on the left side. These doors are designed to only swing inward, but failed when the firefighters were thrown against them.
Firefighters on the ground immediately provided first aid to both victims. Medical assistance was summoned and both victims were transported to the hospital where they were pronounced dead as a result of blunt force injuries. One of the firefighters standing on the cab of the aerial platform apparatus fractured his left heel when he jumped down to render aid.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigated this incident and cited the following contributing factors: unfamiliarity with the controls of a new fire apparatus; training in a high-risk situation without adequate familiarization with the fire apparatus; no fall-restraint devices used during training at height; and the design of the lifting eyes (one of which snagged the parapet wall) and platform doors (which sprung outward during the incident).
See NIOSH’s report at: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face200906.html.
Trapped in grain bin
A fire chief died and five firefighters were injured during suppression activities at a grain bin fire. The bin contained soybeans, and contractors had been hired to offload the contents of the bin because of a clogged auger inside. They ignited a small grass fire when they cut a hole in one of the bin’s doors. The fire department responded and extinguished the fire. Not seeing any smoke coming from the bin, they returned to the fire station.
An hour later, they were called for a second fire at the bin. The steel bin had a diameter of 72 feet (22 meters) and a height of 61 feet (18 meters) with a capacity of 250,000 bushels (8,810 cubic meters). Two firefighters dressed in full protective clothing, including self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), climbed up the exterior ladder and then down the interior ladder of the bin and operated a 1.5-inch (38-millimeter) hose line, while breathing from their SCBA units the entire time. A short time later, they requested two additional air cylinders, which were dropped down to them. As they were changing their cylinders, two more firefighters dressed in full protective clothing, including SCBA units, entered the bin. The second firefighter to change his cylinder ran out of air and became light headed. The fire chief sounded the evacuation for the men in the bin.
The first firefighter in was the first to climb the ladder to the roof of the bin. The second firefighter got halfway up but stopped when he became weak and dizzy. The fire chief without SCBA climbed down to help him, and one of the firefighters below started climbing up to assist. As they tried to help the dizzy firefighter, he fell headfirst into the soybeans and was buried up to his waist. The fire chief continued down and helped get him out from under the soybeans.
During this time, the fire chief and firefighters were having trouble breathing. Firefighters from another fire department operating from an aerial tower platform cut an escape hole into the bin, but the hole was too high. They cut a second hole and were able to remove the fire chief and the fallen firefighter, who were both unconscious.
The fire chief never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead at the hospital. The cause of death was asphyxia. The five firefighters were treated and recovered.
Collapse in a fire station
A 40-year-old firefighter/paramedic with seven years’ service was working an overtime night shift. At 2:30 a.m., she and her company responded to a call for a fire alarm going off. They returned to the fire station and retired for the night.
At 6 a.m., she collapsed in the lavatory. Her collapse was not witnessed but was heard; first aid was immediately administered to her by the rest of her crew. She was transported to the hospital, where she underwent 11 hours of surgery.
She died at approximately 4:30 p.m. as a result of a stroke caused by a clot in the carotid artery.
Struck by falling tree
A firefighter was killed instantly when a dead tree fell, striking him on the head. The 52-year-old firefighter was participating in a marijuana eradication project and was loading bundles of marijuana into sling loads that were taken away by helicopter.
The 30-year veteran, certified in helicopter long line operations, assisted in hooking up a bale of marijuana and walked to the edge of the field where some dead trees were standing as the helicopter took off. Investigators believe the "rotor wash" from the helicopter toppled the dead tree, which snapped off at the base. The firefighter was unable to get out of the way after a warning was shouted, and he was struck on the head. An OSHA investigation cited the department with several safety violations. The main violation was not identifying and removing the dead trees prior to the operation.
Cause of death was head trauma.
Floor collapse in structure fire
A 22-year veteran fire lieutenant and a 10-year veteran firefighter died as a result of a partial floor collapse at a structure fire. The two-story structure of ordinary construction covered 2,295 square feet (213 square meters) of ground floor area. The first level housed a delicatessen/convenience store at the front with an unoccupied apartment at the rear. The second level contained two apartments with only the rear apartment occupied. Two street-level doors to the delicatessen were secured by locked metal gates. One of these doors was located at the front of the building. The other was on the left side of the building and could not be used because of the placement of floor coolers on the inside. A third street-level door located at the front of the building led to a stairway to the second-level apartments. The basement was also heavily secured. All of the window openings were filled in with concrete and steel bars. The basement had an exterior below-grade steel-barred door at the rear of the left side and a heavily secured interior wooden door accessed through the delicatessen.
At 3:51 a.m., fire companies were dispatched to the fire with an alert reporting that people were trapped inside. A civilian met the first-arriving company and said he heard trapped people calling for help. He directed the company to the below-grade entrance, which became the focus of the operation. Other firefighters were used for a simultaneous primary search on the second level because more information suggested possible trapped people. The first-arriving companies reported that the fire was in the basement, but access was limited due to the metal-barred door. Firefighters searched for a basement entrance inside the delicatessen. When the general location of the door was found, a line of hose was stretched there. Because firefighters were unable to gain access to the basement from the rear and conditions were deteriorating, all companies were ordered out of the building.
At approximately 4:22 a.m., the rescue company entered the delicatessen to make sure all firefighters had evacuated. Less than two minutes after they entered, floor supports collapsed. The lieutenant on the rescue company was searching along the line of hose when the floor collapsed under him and he fell into the basement. He immediately began calling for help over his radio using a channel that limited the range to the fire ground and nearby fire stations.
The remaining members of the rescue company, not knowing the origin of the distress calls and reporting only that they heard a loud noise, exited the building without realizing that their lieutenant was in trouble. A Firefighter Assist and Search Team (FAST) was deployed at the rear entrance on the left side of the building where the distress call was thought to be emanating from. At the same time, a FAST firefighter was standing with his company in front of the building when he heard the calls for help and learned that the trapped lieutenant had entered through the front of the building. He initiated a rescue attempt and also fell into the basement near the lieutenant.
A head count was taken, and it was reported that only the lieutenant was missing. The firefighter was not reported missing by his officer, who responded to dispatch that the company was "OK" at the time. Firefighters operating in the delicatessen could hear a Personal Alert Safety System alarm sounding, but could not reach the area due to weakened floors, extreme fire conditions, and continuing collapse. Later concerns arose when the firefighter could not be accounted for, and numerous attempts were made to determine his whereabouts. He was erroneously reported to be operating at a remote location. At 6:10 a.m., another head count was taken and the firefighter was reported missing.
Due to fire conditions and the concern over the structure’s integrity, it took another three hours before the bodies of the 45-year-old lieutenant and 34-year-old firefighter were removed. Both were dressed in full turn-out clothing, including SCBA. The firefighter’s radio was not turned on. The cause of death for both victims was listed as inhalation of products of combustion.