Selected 2015 On-Duty Firefighter Fatality Incidents

Floor collapse at house fire

At 5:45 p.m. on February 11, the owner of a one-story, wood-frame, single-family, ranch-style house covering 2,500 square feet (230 square meters) lit a trash fire in a metal barrel next to the carport where his car was parked. He then went inside to join his wife. When he later heard crackling and popping sounds, he went outside to investigate and found his car, the carport, and other combustibles on fire. Seeing that brisk winds were spreading the fire to the house, he immediately went back inside and called 911 before leaving the house with his wife.

A responding engine company, including a 46-year-old lieutenant with 24 years’ service, reported to the incident commander, who ordered them to ventilate the basement.

All members of the company were dressed in full turn-out gear, including positive pressure self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). When the company members reported they were unable to enter the basement due to the amount of hoarded items stored in it, the incident commander reassigned them to cut ventilation holes in the kitchen floor. As conditions deteriorated, the incident commander ordered them out of the building. As they left the house, the floor in the foyer collapsed, plunging the lieutenant and four firefighters into the basement.

The rapid intervention team (RIT), supplemented by firefighters from other companies, quickly retrieved the four fallen firefighters, but the lieutenant was pinned from the waist down by debris and surrounded by fire. Thirty minutes after the collapse, the RIT managed to pull the lieutenant from the basement and took him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His face-piece had been knocked off sometime between the collapse and his removal from the building, and he died of smoke inhalation.

The four firefighters and a battalion chief were burned and suffered various degrees of smoke inhalation as a result of staying in the building and helping until everyone was rescued. All the firefighters and the chief, who sustained the worst injuries, are expected to recover.

Struck by vehicle while directing traffic

Shortly after 9 p.m. on February 15, a 52-year-old firefighter arrived in his personal vehicle at the scene of a car crash on a highway. Using a flashlight, he began to direct traffic while standing in a safe zone that earlier responders had created by placing the fire department’s apparatus and police vehicles in such a way as to reduce traffic to a single lane.

An SUV operated by an intoxicated individual left the travel lane and entered the safe zone, hitting the firefighter and pinning him between the SUV and the fire apparatus. The firefighters on the scene immediately went to his aid and transported him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead as a result of blunt force trauma to the head.

The driver, who fled the scene, was later tracked to his home and arrested. He was charged with felony driving under the influence resulting in death and leaving the scene of an accident.

Sudden cardiac death at house fire

On February 19 at 6:48 p.m., the fire department responded to a 911 call from someone who discovered a fire in a neighboring single-story, wood-frame duplex. The house, which had no fire detection or suppression system, was unoccupied at the time.

Members of the first-arriving engine company, who were all dressed in full personal protective equipment, advanced a charged hose line into the structure. Soon afterward, the engine company officer, a 57-year-old captain with 37 years’ service, left the building and began walking to an EMS unit when he collapsed. Paramedics and fire personnel immediately gave him medical attention and transported him to a hospital, where he died on February 21 from complications of myocardial infarction due to hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. The captain, who was 6 feet 4 inches (193 cm) tall and weighed 368 pounds (167 kilograms), had a history of hypertension and type 2 diabetes, as well as hyperlipidemia and obesity, for which he was taking prescription medications.

The cause of the fire was resistance heating and arcing in a multi-plug electrical adapter.

Structural collapse at house fire

At 8:30 a.m. on March 3, three firefighters responded on mutual aid to a house fire in a neighboring jurisdiction. When they arrived at the two-story, wood-frame house 13 minutes later, the incident commander assigned them to interior fire attack.

The firefighters, dressed in full personal protective equipment, including SCBA, entered the building with a hose line and began to fight the fire. Fire conditions deteriorated a short time later, and the three firefighters started backing out of the building. As the first firefighter, an 18-year-old high school senior, left the house, the front porch roof, which was covered with wet snow, collapsed, trapping him under the debris in a position that inhibited his breathing.

Once he was extricated, an EMT managed to revive him, and he was transported to a hospital and placed on a respirator. Six days later, he was taken off the respirator and died as a result of positional asphyxiation.

The other two firefighters were able to escape the building with minor injuries.

Fall down elevator shaft

On March 26, the fire department received a call at 5:30 a.m. reporting a fire at a five-story building containing 38 apartments. The non-combustible structure was equipped with an operational fire alarm–smoke detection system, which operated. An elevator served all five levels. The elevator doors, which looked and operated like regular apartment doors, were equipped with hydraulic door closers and heavy-duty door pulls.

The first-due companies found no fire showing when they arrived, but the district fire chief confirmed 10 minutes later that they had a working fire and called for a second alarm six minutes after that.

Among companies responding to the second alarm was a heavy rescue company with an officer, two firefighters, and a fire apparatus operator (FAO). On arrival, they reported to the incident commander, who ordered them to help search the fifth story. The four, who were dressed in full personal protective equipment, including positive pressure SCBAs, entered the building through the front door and walked up the stairs on the left side of the building.

The officer and the two firefighters reached the fifth story before the FAO and started to search the apartments. As the FOA reached the fifth-story landing, he met other members of the fire department who were taking two victims out of the building. Because he could not see them clearly, he asked if they were members of his company and identified himself. They identified the company they were assigned to and continued down the stairs.

At this point, the FAO entered the fifth-story hallway and opened an unlocked door, apparently thinking it was an apartment door. He fell 23 feet (7 meters) head first down the elevator shaft to the top of the elevator, which was stopped near the second story. His head became wedged between the outside wall of the elevator and the wall of the shaft. No one saw him fall. Members of his company found him when they heard the low air alarm on his SCBA sound. The firefighter was extricated, treated, and taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead from head injuries.

Investigators determined that the fire started in the kitchen of an apartment on the second floor where the occupant had left food cooking unattended. The fire spread to the hallway, generating copious amounts of smoke throughout the building.

Helicopter crash on controlled burn

On March 30 at 2:35 p.m., a helicopter crashed while its three-person contract crew was monitoring a controlled burn in a national forest. Two crew members were killed, and the third was seriously injured.

Witnesses on the ground who were in contact with the helicopter reported that their vision was obscured by smoke, and none of them saw the helicopter crash. Satellite tracking data indicated that the helicopter had been flying low over the 800-acre (324-hectare) burn area for about 50 minutes before it went down. Its last reported position, at 2:33 p.m., indicated that it was flying at an altitude of 350 feet (107 meters) with a heading of 150 degrees. One witness told investigators that he saw the helicopter make a 180-degree left turn and that about seven seconds later he heard a noise that sounded like an air hose being detached from a high-pressure tank, followed by the sound of the helicopter hitting trees and the ground.

The pilot died of smoke inhalation, and a second crew member died of trauma. The lone survivor, who also suffered severe trauma, was found outside the helicopter when the medivac helicopter arrived.

This information is from a preliminary report on the incident from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Sudden cardiac death

On April 7, a 51-year-old wildland contract tree faller (a logger hired to cut down trees) died while participating in a pack test, also known as a work capacity test, that he was required to take to qualify for one of the three levels of wildland firefighting duty. The test required him to hike 3 miles (5 kilometers) in 45 minutes carrying a 45-pound (20-kilogram) pack.

After one lap around the track of the multi-surface trail, the faller went to the lavatory. When the test administrator went to check on him, he found him collapsed on the floor. The administrator called the EMT who was on scene, and she started cardiopulmonary resuscitation immediately. An ambulance took the victim to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead of a heart attack. Investigators later learned that the faller had a history of heart problems and had once had heart surgery.

Struck by tree

On May 3, firefighters responded at 1:28 a.m. to an automobile crash with ensuing fire. After extinguishing the blaze, they began picking up their equipment to return to their station when a dead tree not involved in the crash fell unexpectedly on a 41-year-old firefighter with 11 years’ service, pinning him to the ground. Other crew members removed the firefighter quickly and administered first aid. He was transported to a hospital, where he died as a result of a broken neck.

Drowning during flood evacuation

At 10:30 p.m. on May 23, firefighters were called to evacuate approximately 10 people stranded in their homes by rising flood waters caused by heavy rainstorms that had swept across the area.

A 46-year-old fire captain escorting the trapped residents along a walkway next to a culvert fell into the culvert, and the rushing water carried him into a 36-inch (91-centimeter) storm drain that narrowed into an 18-inch (46-centimeter) pipe. He became trapped in the drain and drowned. The body of the 20-year veteran was recovered several hours later.

A fire lieutenant who also fell into the culvert while trying to help the captain survived the incident and was taken to a hospital for treatment of his injuries.

Fall through skylight

On June 28, a passerby called the fire department at 9:30 p.m. to report a fire in a trash container in front of a vacant warehouse. The warehouse was a single-story, unprotected, non-combustible structure with 14,000 square feet (1,300 square meters) of ground-floor area. It had no detection or suppression system.

The first two companies of the first alarm assignment, a truck and an engine company, arrived on scene four minutes after they were dispatched. The truck company moved the trash container away from the building as the engine company used a charged hose line to extinguish the fire. Both companies noted that an area under the window near the burning trash container was charred.

Shortly afterward, the chief and the rest of the first alarm companies arrived. The chief took command and asked the officer and crew of the first truck company to enter the warehouse to see if the fire had spread. Once inside, they saw a haze, so the chief sent the crew of the second truck company up to the roof to look for any sign of fire extension.

Finding that the flames had not spread to the roof, the firefighters began returning to the ground when one of them stepped through a skylight. The 46-year-old man, who was dressed in full personal protective clothing, including SCBA, fell 20 feet (6 meters). Nearby crews heard him land.

The chief called the ambulance that was standing by, and firefighters on scene began giving the injured firefighter first aid. He regained consciousness and was transported to a hospital, where doctors determined that he had fractured his wrist, several of his ribs, and the transvers processes of three vertebrae. He had also dislocated an elbow and torn his right brachial artery. He was treated for these wounds and discharged from the hospital on July 9.

On July 15, the injured firefighter complained of shortness of breath. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, but became unresponsive before reaching the hospital. Efforts to revive him failed, and he was pronounced dead on arrival as a result of complications of blunt force trauma.

As a result of this incident, the fire department implemented a mandatory safety reporting policy that requires the firefighter completing the fire report to indicate whether any safety concerns arose at the incident. In addition, the department’s Fire Prevention and Operations Divisions must identify buildings that have skylights or translucent panels that pose similar risk. The Fire Prevention Division also submitted a code amendment requiring fluorescent signage and guardrails around roof openings of this type, and the department proposed assigning a dedicated safety officer to fire scenes, separate from the incident commander. The department also proposed that its Training Division provide additional training based on the observations made at this incident during the department’s professional development training. Finally, the department provided each company with a tool to use to cut off turn-out gear and hired an outside contractor to create incident command software to improve incident accountability, provide enhanced aerial and street level view mapping, ensure National Incident Management systems consistency, and provide real-time access to preplans prior to and during an incident.

Struck by tree on wildland fire

On August 8, a fire crew was called to a forest fire in a remote area at 5:30 p.m. The crew was engaged in initial attack activities when a weakened hemlock tree fell on two of the firefighters. One man, a 21-year-old with a year’s service, died on scene of head injuries in spite of his colleagues’ efforts to resuscitate him. The second firefighter sustained head injuries and a bone-bruised knee but survived. He was treated at a hospital and released.

Investigators determined that the fire, which was confined to less than an acre (0.4 hectares), was started by a lightning strike.

Vehicle crash en route to call

At 7:30 a.m. on September 23, the fire department received a call for a 63-year-old man who was having chest pains. As three firefighters, including the assistant chief of EMS, responded with the rescue ambulance, they crashed into the rear of a slow-moving front-end loader.

The assistant chief, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, died of blunt force trauma to the head. It was not reported if he was wearing a seat belt. The other two firefighters were treated for minor injuries and released from the hospital. The operator of the front-end loader was not injured.

Investigators cited early morning sunshine, fog, and speed as reasons for the crash.

Sudden cardiac death

On December 4, a fire department ambulance responded to a large retail store for a man in cardiac arrest. Among those responding in the ambulance was a 49-year-old firefighter with 13 years of service. He began supporting an ambulance crew already on scene by starting chest compressions as part of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

As he worked on the patient, however, he went into cardiac arrest himself, and a second ambulance was called. He was transported to a hospital, where he died of a coronary artery thrombosis resulting from coronary atherosclerosis. No history of heart problems was reported.

Lost inside a structure

On December 19, the fire department received a telephone call at 7 p.m. requesting that it respond on mutual aid for a chimney fire. Once on scene, two firefighters were ordered to run a charged hose to the basement to extinguish the fire there.

As they prepared the hose, a firefighter from another fire department asked if they needed help, and the three firefighters, dressed in full personal protective equipment, including SCBA, advanced the hose into the basement. The third firefighter stayed at the door and fed hose to the nozzle man and back-up man inside. A short time later, they realized that the back-up firefighter, a 19-year-old male with three years of service, had become separated from them.

He was quickly found and removed to the outside. He was treated by on-scene paramedics and transported to a hospital, where he later died from his injuries. Cause of death was inhalation of super-heated gases.

Top Photograph: Reuters/David Ryder