2010 Firefighter Fatalities Incidents
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2011
By Rita F. Fahy, Paul R. LeBlanc, and Joseph L. Molis
Download the full 2010 Firefighter Fatalities Report (PDF, 151 KB)
Crash during response
At 6 a.m., an 81-year-old firefighter crashed into a truck while driving his own car to the fire station to pick up an ambulance to respond to an emergency medical service call. The truck had been involved in a crash and was blocking both travel lanes on a dark, unlighted roadway on which no hazard warning devices had been placed. After crashing into the rear of the truck, the firefighter’s vehicle went off the road and struck a traffic sign. The vehicle then veered back onto the road, crossed it, and went off the opposite side, where it came to a halt. The firefighter died on impact from severe blunt force trauma to the head.
Struck by vehicle
At 12:30 p.m., the fire department and other first responders, including fire/police officers, responded to a two-vehicle crash that knocked down a utility pole. A 62-year-old fire/police officer wearing a reflective vest put orange cones down to mark the crash scene and began directing traffic. He had been doing so for an hour when a 72-year-old man crashed through the cones and hit him. The impact threw the officer onto the front of the car and into the front windshield, which smashed, and over the roof into the rear windshield, which also smashed. The officer was transported to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead from blunt force trauma.
NIOSH investigated this incident and offers recommendations at www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face201006.html.
Drowning during rescue
At 1 a.m., the fire department received a mutual-aid request for a swift water rescue crew to help evacuate people from a flooded area in a neighboring jurisdiction. A five-member team responded with its 14-foot (4-meter) hard-deck, soft-hull, self-bailing pontoon boat. When they arrived at the flooded area, the firefighters dressed in wet suits with personal floatation devices, quarter-length boots, gloves, and polycarbonate helmets. Three of the firefighters operated the boat while the other two stood by or worked with another department.
The crew in the boat had already completed four evacuations and removed 15 people when they received a call to help two more people who were trapped by the floodwaters. As they responded, the bottom of the boat hit a submerged object, causing it to make a hard left turn that sent it into the fast current. As the current carried them down stream, the firefighters yelled for help, but the boat struck a bridge and capsized before anyone could reach them. Two of the men were rescued by other firefighters. The body of the third was recovered six days later, 4.5 miles (7 kilometers) downstream. The cause of death was drowning, with a contributory factor of multiple blunt force injuries.
NIOSH investigated this incident and offers recommendations at www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face201009.html
At 8 a.m., a 53-year-old fire lieutenant with 30 years of service started his shift, as he had most of his previous shifts, by preparing morning reports and outlining the routine for the day. At 10 a.m., the fire department conducted a bi-annual training session consisting of a ladder climb, a hose drag, use of a pike pole, a crawl through a confined space, a dummy drag, a hose carry, and operation of a sled mechanism that simulates forcible entry with an ax. During the untimed session, which was done at a walking pace, the firefighters wore a full protective clothing ensemble with a self-contained breathing apparatus.
After the lieutenant completed the training, he complained of pain in his shoulder and left the training area.
When an alarm came in, both on-duty crews were dispatched. The lieutenant did not respond, and each crew assumed that he had responded with the other company or missed the call because he was taking a shower. On returning to the station, however, they found the lieutenant unconscious in the bunkroom. Firefighters began cardiopulmonary resuscitation and advanced life support, and the lieutenant was taken to a hospital where resuscitation efforts continued for another 10 minutes until the attending physician pronounced him dead. The cause of death is listed as an acute thrombus of left anterior descending artery due to hypertensive arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
NIOSH investigated this incident and offers recommendations at www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face201011.html.
Crash during response
At 9:15 p.m., a 25-year-old firefighter responding on his all-terrain vehicle (ATV) to a search and rescue call for a missing elderly man hit a whitetail deer that was crossing the road. The collision caused the ATV to veer off the road into a ditch and roll over. The firefighter, who was not wearing a helmet, was thrown off the ATV, which was not equipped with a seat belt. A passerby stopped at the crash scene and called 911 to report it. Although responding fire and police personnel found the firefighter in the ditch and administered first aid immediately, EMS personnel pronounced him dead at the scene. Cause of death was listed as blunt trauma of the head.
The elderly man returned home later that evening.
A passerby discovered a fire at 4:45 a.m. in a building that housed a used office furniture store and warehouse, and immediately called 911. The two-story structure, which was of ordinary construction and contained 14,000 square feet (1,300 square meters) of ground floor area, was closed for the evening.
Responding to the fire were a battalion fire chief, four engine companies, a ladder company, and a quint, a combination fire apparatus with an aerial ladder, as well as a pump, hose, water tank, and ladders.
The ladder company arrived and began to set up for a defensive attack in case it was needed. The first two engine companies forced the front door open but did not enter the building for an interior attack. When he arrived, the battalion fire chief did a scene size-up and ordered the fourth-due engine company to act as the rapid intervention team (RIT). The officer and a firefighter from the quint, dressed in full protective clothing, advanced a charged 1 3/4-inch (44-millimeter) hose line through the front door, followed by a two-member team from each of the first two engine companies and the ladder company, also dressed in full protective clothing. Only one hose line was advanced into the structure.
The crews inside the building were confronted with crackling noises, intense heat, and thick smoke that resulted in zero visibility, but they didn’t see any flames or hear any sounds of falling debris. After advancing the line of hose inside approximately 50 feet (15 meters), the crews left the building, leaving the hand line inside. The battalion fire chief, after setting up the command post, decided to begin a defensive attack but did not communicate this over the department radio.
A reported flashover took place some time after all the firefighters had left the building, blowing out the structure’s front windows and causing fire to vent through the roof on the left side. Fire crews suppressed the fire using a defensive attack. One of two officers operating a hose line on the front right side of the building had walked about 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from the structure when the wall and a steel I-beam collapsed outward, striking the other officer who was within the collapse zone. The RIT and another officer quickly rescued the stricken man and transported him to a local hospital, where he was diagnosed as paralyzed from the waist down. He also had two broken arms, a broken left femur, a broken pelvis, broken ribs, and a punctured lung. His arteries were also damaged.
He was transferred to two additional hospitals and underwent numerous surgeries. He had progressed to the point that he was doing physical therapy, but died five months later of an unexpected pulmonary embolus as a result of complications of paraplegia.
Fall at fire ground
At 00:36 a.m., the fire department was dispatched to a fire in a restaurant on the first floor of a four-story, mixed-occupancy building. When they arrived, firefighters determined that the fire was in the grease chute that extended from the ground level to the roof. The building was of ordinary construction with 1,650 square feet (153 square meters) of ground floor area. The stove area was protected by a fixed, wet-chemical system that did not activate; the reason why was not reported.
A 31-year-old firefighter with two years’ experience, dressed in a full protective clothing ensemble including a self-contained breathing apparatus, climbed a fire escape to the fourth story carrying a water extinguisher. He then tried to scale a fixed fire escape ladder to the roof, still carrying the water extinguisher, but lost his grip and fell to the sidewalk. On-scene firefighters immediately performed first aid and transported him to a hospital, where he died of multiple traumatic injuries.
At 5:45 p.m., more than 80 firefighters responded to a fast-moving grass fire across rough terrain with 10-foot (3-meter) flames. Two hours into the fire, a 54-year-old firefighter with more than 30 years’ service collapsed on the fire ground. He was transported to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead from cardiomyopathy. He had had a pacemaker implanted five years earlier and had just had a physical examination, which cleared him to fight fires.
At 4:30 p.m., firefighters found the deputy fire chief unconscious in the fire station workout room. He had been participating in an unsupervised, mandatory 40-minute exercise session that included the use of an exercise machine, shortly after responding to an emergency medical call. Paramedics were unable to resuscitate the chief, and he was pronounced dead at the hospital as a result of cardiac arrhythmia.
NIOSH investigated this incident and offers recommendations at www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face201033.html.
At 2:19 p.m., a 26-year-old firefighter with two months’ experience was killed when a 120-gallon (454-liter) galvanized water tank he and his crew were using to fight a large brush fire failed. The four-member crew was operating from an SUV-type vehicle with off-road capability, along with firefighters from other departments. The vehicle’s water tank was designed to be pressurized to a maximum of 75 psi using two 3,000-psi self-contained breathing apparatus cylinders connected to a pressure regulator. The tank was connected to a power reel that contained the fire hose.
The four firefighters were standing at different positions around the vehicle when the tank failed. The victim, who was taking a break from fighting the fire with hand tools, was standing at the rear on the driver’s side.
When the tank failed, the end of it struck the power reel and deflected into the woods. The power reel separated from the bed of the vehicle and struck the tailgate, which sent the reel into the air. It hit the firefighter on the head and shoulder, killing him instantly. The nature of death was listed as traumatic injuries to the head. A second firefighter who was also injured was transported to the hospital, treated, and released.
At 3:52 p.m., the department of public works (DPW) received a telephone call from the police about sewage backing up. A heavy motor equipment operator and a road maintenance foreman, who was also a volunteer firefighter, responded in a truck equipped with a large vacuum. The general foreman of the DPW also responded. Their attempt to clear the blockage was unsuccessful, but they were able to trace the blockage to the front of a municipal volunteer fire station. They notified the fire department, and a short time later, the fire chief and a firefighter arrived. A second firefighter in the area also came to the site to see what was happening.
After failing to clear the blockage in the front of the station, the DPW crew moved to the back of building and opened a manhole. The road maintenance foreman shouted that the sewer was clogged and went into the manhole without any protective clothing or equipment. No one tried to stop him, and witnesses said that they thought he had fallen when they saw him at the bottom of the 15-foot (4.6-meter) manhole. The general foreman told the fire chief to call for the ambulance squad and the two firefighters to get boots, a length of rope, and a gas meter from the station.
One of the two firefighters, a 51-year-old friend of the foreman, entered the manhole in a rescue attempt. No one tried to stop him, although he was not wearing protective clothing or a self-contained breathing apparatus, either. When he reached the halfway point, he collapsed and fell to the bottom of the manhole. Only then was the gas meter lowered into the manhole. The meter’s alarm went off, indicating that there was only 11 to 14 percent oxygen available. Both men died as a result of asphyxiation from the lack of oxygen and sewer gases in the manhole.
The State Department of Labor investigated the incident and found four problems. First, the DPW stated that their work force did not enter confined spaces because they have trucks equipped with vacuums, but they did, in fact, enter confined spaces. Second, the fire department was not prepared to enter confined spaces. Third, the fire department’s respiratory program was lacking. Finally, the firefighters were not properly trained to identify the hazards of confined spaces. As a result of these findings, the state issued four notices of violation that require the municipality to correct them or be fined $200 per day per violation.
Individuals entering a confined space for rescue purposes should be qualified to NFPA 1006, Technical Rescuer Professional Qualifications, Chapter 7, Confined Space Rescue. Requisite knowledge includes the effects of hazardous atmospheres. Requisite skills include the ability to use atmospheric monitoring equipment and to use and apply appropriate personal protective equipment.
Organizations providing confined space rescue should also meet the requirements of NFPA 1670, Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents, Chapter 7, Confined Space Search and Rescue.
A 53-year-old fire captain with five years of service was killed instantly when he was caught between the firehouse wall and the department’s brush truck as he helped another firefighter work on the truck’s front left wheel. At one point during the work, the wheel had to be repositioned, and a firefighter got into the truck to turn the wheel. The firefighter thought the ignition key was in the locked position, but when he turned it, the truck lurched forward, striking the fire captain who was standing in front of it.
Another firefighter standing in front of the truck was able to jump out of the way and escaped serious injuries. The fire captain died as a result of a basilar skull fracture due to blunt force trauma injury.
NIOSH investigated this incident and offers recommendations at www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face201037.html.
A 52-year-old lieutenant and his wife, also a firefighter, responded to an alarm of fire at a single-family dwelling at 11:59 a.m. The lieutenant, who was dressed in street clothes, arrived at the scene within two minutes, driving a pumper, and his wife arrived driving a tanker. The fire chief, assistant fire chief, and seven firefighters responded in their own vehicles. On arrival, they found the fire burning in the hallway and living room of the vacant house.
The lieutenant parked the pumper, placed the pump in gear, and stretched two 200-foot (61-meter), pre-connected, 1 3/4-inch (44-millimeter) lines of hose to the front door. The assistant fire chief then operated the pump as firefighters began interior fire suppression. The lieutenant got a 60-pound (27-kilogram), gasoline-engine-driven, positive-pressure ventilating fan from the pumper, brought it to the front porch, and started it by pulling on the rope starter. A few minutes later, the fan ran out of fuel and stopped. The lieutenant retrieved a 2-gallon (7.5-liter) container of fuel and refueled and restarted the fan. He then left the front porch and collapsed a short distance away at approximately 12:15 p.m. The on-scene firefighters found him unresponsive, without a pulse and not breathing, and started CPR. They also notified fire dispatch.
In accordance with dispatch protocol, an ambulance was already responding to the scene in case someone got hurt. Dispatch informed the ambulance crew of the lieutenant’s collapse, upgrading their response. When they arrived at approximately 12:21 p.m., paramedics found the lieutenant still unresponsive, with CPR in progress. A cardiac monitor revealed ventricular fibrillation, and paramedics applied a shock, to which the lieutenant did not respond. Cardiac resuscitation medications were administered through an intravenous line, and two additional shocks were applied, but the lieutenant’s heart rhythm remained the same.
The ambulance left the fire scene at 12:36 p.m. and arrived at the emergency department at 12:40 p.m. After 45 minutes of continuous attempts to revive the lieutenant, the attending physician pronounced him dead. The death certificate listed arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease as the cause of death. The nine-year veteran had had two previous heart attacks. The first, in 1998, resulted in five-vessel coronary artery bypass grafts, and the second, in 2008, resulted in an angioplasty with stent placement.
NIOSH investigated this incident and offers recommendations at www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face201026.html.
Struck by snag
At 9:30 p.m., wildland firefighters arrived at the scene of a fire on a rocky bluff and decided not to start suppression activities immediately because of the terrain, wood debris, and lack of resources at risk. After a safety meeting at 8:30 the next morning, a four-person team dressed in appropriate firefighting clothing started suppression activities, constructing a fire line at the top of the steep bluff and in other areas to prevent materials from rolling off the edge.
The four firefighters then went to the base of the bluff where spot fires were burning. While they were making a small line with hand tools, a snag—a tree whose roots have burned through—at the top of the bluff fell and rolled down the hill, striking a 58-year-old firefighter on his hardhat. The victim sustained serious head injuries that left him unconscious, with a fractured hip, bruises, and second-degree burns on his calves. The on-scene firefighters provided first aid until he was transported to the hospital by helicopter.
Five months later, after numerous operations, the firefighter died as a result of complications due to the traumatic injuries he had received.
An investigation into the cause of the fire revealed that a construction and excavation company clearing a construction site had set a brush pile on fire despite a ban on burning. The fire spread, consuming 12 acres (4.8 hectares) of wildland.