2013 Firefighter Fatality Case Studies
On January 8, at 5:30 p.m., a 33-year-old fire captain suffered sudden cardiac death as he conducted a routine inspection at the airport where he worked, looking for wildlife and inoperable lights on the runways and perimeter of the facility.
The captain, who was six feet, three inches (1.8 meters) tall and weighed 290 pounds (131 kilograms), suffered from high blood pressure that was controlled by medication. When he collapsed after stepping out of his pickup truck to shoot a deer near the runway, the firefighter accompanying him notified the dispatch center and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Eleven minutes later, an ambulance arrived and advanced life support was started. The captain was intubated, and a cardiac monitor was applied. Because he was in ventricular fibrillation, EMTs administered three shocks and gave him cardiac resuscitation medications through an inserted intravenous line. EMTs continued their resuscitation efforts as they transported him to a hospital and after they arrived in the emergency room. However, there was no change in the captain’s condition, and he was pronounced dead eight minutes later.
NIOSH investigated this incident and offers recommendations on its website.
At 10:45 p.m. on January 21, fire companies were dispatched on mutual aid to a single-family house fire that began in a small, unattached wooden shed where the occupants kept rabbits. The fire started when three heating lamps used to keep the rabbits’ water from freezing came into contact with combustibles and spread to the house, which was 10 feet (3 meters) away.
A 34-year-old fire captain and a 28-year-old fire lieutenant, dressed in full personal protective equipment (PPE) including self-contained breathing apparatus, were advancing a 1 ½-inch (3.8-centimeter) hand line into the house when the floor collapsed beneath them. The captain fell into the basement, and the lieutenant fell partially through but was able to escape.
The lieutenant reentered the building with other firefighters to rescue the captain, but their initial attempts were unsuccessful due to fire conditions and the captain’s location. By the time the firefighters removed the captain, they noted that his PPE was burned and his face piece had melted.
He and the lieutenant were transported to a hospital where the captain was pronounced dead of an acute ventricular arrhythmia due to an acute thermal inhalation injury. The lieutenant sustained non-life threatening burns to his hands and arms.
On February 14, after returning to the fire station from an emergency medical call at 3:30 am, a 60-year-old fire captain became involved in a physical altercation with the driver of the fire engine over where the engine should be parked in the apparatus bay. The captain fell, striking his head on the concrete floor. He was treated and transported to a medical center, then flown to a hospital where he died due to head trauma.
The captain had joined the fire department six years earlier after retiring from law enforcement and was the fire department’s chaplain.
On February 21, a 55-year-old fire/police officer with five years of service responded to the scene of a motor vehicle crash in her own car. Shortly after she got out of her automobile and put on her reflective vest and helmet, she collapsed as a result of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. EMTs immediately gave her medical attention, and she was transported to a hospital where she died the following evening as a result of the aneurysm.
Fall from roof
At 5:45 p.m. on April 6, the fire department was dispatched to a fire in a three-story building of mixed occupancy, with retail stores on the first floor and apartments above. Initially, the ladder company, headed by a 53-year-old fire captain with 30 years’ service, was assigned as a rapid intervention team. Later, they were ordered to the roof to conduct ventilation operations.
Attired in full PPE, the firefighters made their way to the roof of a building that was attached to the fire building from which they would move to the roof of the burning building to make a trench cut—a ventilation cut extending from eave to eave to reduce horizontal fire spread and mushrooming—to reduce the chances of fire spread from the building of origin to the exposed structure. The captain, who was directing operations on the roof, reported copious amounts of thick smoke and told the incident commander that they were making their way to the roof of the fire building to start ventilation operations.
With smoke obscuring his vision, the captain inadvertently stepped off the roof and fell 20 feet (6 meters) to the roof of a single-story section of the fire building. Firefighters started rescue attempts immediately, but the captain’s location and the fire conditions made getting to him difficult. Eventually, the firefighters had to breach a brick wall into a collapsed area of the fire building to reach the man.
His body was recovered and transported to a hospital. The cause of death was multiple blunt impact injuries.
On April 7, a 47-year-old assistant fire chief with 16 years’ service died when he lost control of the SUV he was driving as he responded to a house fire during a severe thunderstorm. When the chief entered a left-hand turn, the department’s SUV skidded on the wet pavement and slid off the right side of the road, striking a fence and crashing head-on into a tree.
Crews responding to the 9:30 p.m. fire behind the chief stopped, extricated him, and began treating him. He was transported to a hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries. Nature of death was blunt force trauma.
The fire department investigative report cited heavy rains with flash flooding, poor visibility, and driving too fast for the road conditions as the causes of the crash. The chief was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash.
Pinned between vehicles
On May 18, fire companies were dispatched at 5:20 p.m. to what turned out to be a mulch fire that had spread to a building at a mulch yard. One of the first-arriving apparatus was a rescue truck, which the driver parked on the side of the road heading north. He and his partner then got out of the truck and walked toward the rear of the vehicle to get their personal protective equipment out of the end compartments. At about the same time, an engine company arrived with orders to help another engine company lay a feeder line due to the distance of the hydrant from the fire.
As the rescue truck driver stood in the road next to the truck putting on his personal protective equipment, the engine, which had no spotter, backed north along the road where the rescue vehicle was parked. The rescue truck driver’s partner, who was walking to the rear of the rescue vehicle on the passenger side, saw that the engine was backing too close to the rescue vehicle and shouted to the driver of the engine to stop, but it was too late. The engine pinned the rescue truck driver between the two vehicles.
Due to the victim’s position, it was impossible to move the engine or the rescue truck without causing further injury, so firefighters used air bags and hydraulic spreaders and rams to free him. When the 15-minute process was over, he was treated and transported to a hospital, where surgery was performed. He died the following morning from multiple blunt force injuries.
The following contributing factors were cited as having played a major part in the accident: the engine driver did not use any help in the backing the engine up, those involved were not paying attention to what was going on around them, and there were no readily available hydrants. Speed was not considered excessive, and no civil or criminal offenses are pending.
Struck by object
At 5 p.m. on June 10, a 28-year-old firefighter with 10 years’ service was helping construct a fire line at a forest fire when he was hit on the back of the neck by a tree limb that had fallen 60 feet (18 meters). The victim was part of a three-person team of smoke jumpers that had parachuted into the fire area from an airplane that morning.
The victim was treated by the firefighters at the scene and flown to a hospital where continuing efforts failed to revive him.
On June 18, a 24-year-old firefighter/EMT with four years’ service was found dead at the fire station where she was assigned. An investigation determined that she had committed suicide as a result of personal issues.
Rapid fire spread
On July 13, the fire department responded to a 5:25 p.m. mutual aid call for a fire in a single-story, wood-frame, single-family house with flames showing. As soon as two fire lieutenants responding as an engine company arrived, they put on their PPE and reported to the incident commander.
The fire chief instructed them to enter the building through a basement door at the rear of the building. However, their entrance was delayed because the door was locked, and the
1½-inch (3.8-centimeter) hand line that was deployed was too short.
When they were finally ready to enter the building, the lieutenants and the fire chief performed a satisfactory radio check. One of the lieutenants also ordered a firefighter to place a vent fan at the door and to stand by and listen for them. The two lieutenants then put their face pieces on and entered the building with forcible entrance tools and the hand line.
Inside the basement, the two encountered dense gray smoke 2 to 3 feet (0.5 to 1 meters) off the floor with very little heat. With visibility good for approximately 6 feet (2 meters), they crawled further, still unable to see the fire, until visibility was reduced to 2 feet (0.5 meters). As they continued crawling forward and to the right, the heat increased a little, but, as they radioed the chief, they still could not find any fire. When the chief told them that he thought the fire was on the first level, they let him know that they were going to leave the basement.
As the two lieutenants started out of the building, they saw an orange glow overhead, and the lieutenant on the nozzle applied water as a straight stream. At the same time, the chief ordered them to get out.
By this time, the smoke had turned black and visibility had dropped to zero. Thinking that the fire was going to flash over, the two men dropped the hose in an attempt to get out of the building faster. The lieutenant who had operated the nozzle passed the other lieutenant and became lost. Looking back, the second man saw the fire getting larger and picked up the hose again, changing the nozzle setting to a spray and discharging water over his head. As the fire receded, he followed the hose toward the exit, where firefighters outside grabbed him and pulled him out of the building.
The firefighters yelled to the other lieutenant so he would know which direction to go, and he eventually made it close enough to the exit that they could pull him out, too. Both lieutenants were taken to a hospital, where the man who had become lost was placed into a medically induced coma. He had sustained burns to 50 to 75 percent of his body and died a week later from sepsis. The other lieutenant sustained non-life threatening injuries.
The fire was determined to have started in debris behind a clothes dryer in the home’s basement.
On August 30, a fire captain and two other firefighters were assigned to patrol a forest at 7 a.m. to see if they could locate the area where smoke had been reported the night before. Dressed in required PPE, including full-face protective helmets, each man drove a four-wheel-drive ATV weighing 600 pounds (272 kilograms) in different directions to cover more ground. The three kept in contact using department radios.
At 1:44 p.m., smoke from a new fire was reported, and they agreed to respond to that location. That was the last understandable communication from the captain. After two hours with no contact, the fire department began a search that lasted a week before his body was found, trapped under the ATV he had been using.
Investigators examining the area determined that he had tried to negotiate a 30-degree incline, during which the ATV had overturned. The captain either jumped or was thrown from the ATV, which rolled over him, hit a tree, and fell back on him. He died of asphyxiation.
At 1 p.m. on September 27, a 40-year-old wildland firefighter with 11 years’ service died during a training session when his parachute failed to open after he jumped from a plane at 6,000 feet (1,829 meters). The training session entailed jumping from the plane as one would during a regular response to an emergency in a remote area. Participating firefighters have to jump at least once every two weeks during the fire season to maintain their certification.
The firefighter, who was second to leave the plane, was pronounced dead at the scene by a paramedic who arrived by helicopter. An investigation is focusing on his parachute.
On December 12 at 12:30 a.m., a 72-year-old firefighter with 28 years’ service fell from the running board of the pumper as he repacked a hose after returning to the fire station after extinguishing a fire in a single-family house. He struck the back of his head on the apparatus bay floor. Alert and in little pain, he was transported to a hospital for a CAT scan. The scan revealed that he had bleeding on his brain, and surgery was performed to release the pressure. In spite of the medical attention he received, the firefighter died three days later. The nature of death was trauma.
On December 14, a 25-year-old firefighter with three months’ service was driving to the fire station to respond to a motor vehicle crash when his vehicle crossed over the center line after entering a curve. He overcorrected and lost control of the vehicle, which ran off the right side of the road, hit a large block of concrete, and overturned.
He was treated and transported to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead as a result of internal trauma. Speed and a wet roadway were cited as factors causing the crash. He was not wearing a seatbelt but was not ejected from the vehicle.
On December 15 at 12:30 a.m., the fire department was called to a fire in a single-family, wood-frame house that had been vacant for 10 years. The fire had been intentionally set in the laundry room and had spread throughout the rear of the structure before they arrived.
After the firefighters, dressed in full PPE, searched the building for victims and knocked the fire down, they began overhaul operations. A fire lieutenant with 12 years’ service was instructing a new firefighter on overhauling techniques when a large section of the ceiling fell on the two of them. The firefighter was able to escape, but the lieutenant was trapped under the debris.
He was removed from the building and transported to a hospital where he died of crushing injuries to his chest. Two men have been arrested for murder and arson, and are awaiting trial.