This will be a three-part series looking at the firefighter fatality data from 2010 to present, focusing on those victims who died while searching for occupants. The first part will introduce the data and go into detail on the general numbers as well as the cause and nature of death and the fire buildings. The second part will look at the fires and firefighters in each incident and their related NIOSH investigation reports. The final part will review contrasts between USFA data and NIOSH reports, summarize the findings and present items for further discussion and investigation.
The final part of this series of review of firefighter fatalities looks at contrasts between what is reported as notification of the victims’ deaths and what is later learned from federal and department investigative reports. A look at generalizations on the subject and some cultural fallacies will also help us conclude this series.
The data presented and reviewed ranges from 2010 to present day and is based on the United States Fire Administration’s activity type ‘Search and Rescue’. This data was selected in order to determine:
- The total number of deaths that actually occurred during a search inside a burning building Highlight those numbers that are generalized based on the data collection
- Provide additional details significant to the fire service by various groupings and highlights of the fatalities
- Point out areas of progress and concern as well as refute cultural messages based in a large majority on fear with the findings from the data.
From 2010 to present time, 20 on-duty deaths have been recorded under the activity type ‘Search and Rescue’. Of those 20, 13 victims were involved in firefighting operations. To better understand what is presented in the general reporting from the United States Fire Administration readers need to give scrutiny to the data while not lessening the measure of sacrifice and commitment to service that each fallen firefighter has given. In considering this activity type and the first step in any lessons learned regarding searching burning buildings we need to ask what happened to the seven fatalities we are not including and why we leave them out of the discussion.
Of those seven, two died during water rescues; one died while looking for an outside fire; one during a secondary collapse at a structure not involved in fire and one during a confined space rescue attempt. Each of these tragedies carries valuable lessons for the fire service (often repeated ones) but in the context of dying inside a burning structure offer very little substance to the discussion. To complete the seven we have two who died during training, which should be the field of service where a firefighter’s death should receive the greatest scrutiny in the purpose of prevention. One suffered a heart attack during technical rescue training and one suffered a heart attack during SCBA training. So we see that while these seven deaths are tragic their details offer little use to us when discussing firefighters killed while performing a search in a burning structure.
To break down the lump number even further we have to remove one more fatality from the discussion. In Kentucky on August 2013, a volunteer firefighter was killed while searching for a child inside a burning residential structure. The victim happened to be in the neighborhood at the time of the fire and, without any PPE, made entry. He was severely burned after being caught in a flashover and died two months later. There was no child inside the dwelling. While his sacrifice is noble, in the area of discussing fatality data it is a one-off and stands apart from the details.
Among those killed during a search, two died during the secondary search. In Massachusetts and Texas both victims went back inside to search for victims and both were caught in a structural collapse. In Worcester, Massachusetts the victim was part of two companies that were sent back into a burning three-story multi-family dwelling based upon reports from an occupant insisting someone was still inside the structure. In Dallas, Texas the victim was part of a company reportedly sent back into the dwelling to conduct a search. This actual direction or order has been the source of contention within the department and the investigation based on conflicting statements from the incident commander and others on the scene. In both Worcester and Dallas it was collapsing building materials and not fire that claimed each victim.
Searching with a Hoseline
The majority of our victims, five, were assigned or operating as members of an engine company as well as the first-due or first-arriving company. One of the five killed one was an officer and the others were firefighters. Of these victims, four were actually on the first-due engine company. The remaining one was on a department special unit that was the first-arriving apparatus. Four of the fatalities were searching with a hoseline; three with a charged hoseline.
Those victims who died while searching with a hoseline (four) met their fate in the following manners:
Victim asphyxiated after vomiting into the nosecone of his SCBA facepiece. He had become separated from others and was later found away from the hoseline.
Two victims died as a result of thermal burns and carbon monoxide exposure after having been caught in a flashover. Their officer had called for their hoseline to be charged while an engine company operating opposite the victims was penciling the fire.
One victim died due to conflagration injuries and smoke inhalation after having been caught in a flashover and becoming disoriented. Penciling was being done by the victim’s nozzleman during the initial attack.
Risk management/assessment and fireground tactics are the only commonalities in contributing factors from the investigative reports on the fatalities involving deaths due to burn injuries and related to penciling. The likelihood of occupants inside was low due to one structure being a public assembly hall on fire after 2300 hours and an apartment building on fire with confirmation that all occupants were out and accounted for. This does not imply that the value of the primary search is to be lessened in the overall mission but that consideration of possible victims may not be the top most immediate priority. As we learned instead, it was the understanding of the fire conditions presented that was the significant factor.
Occupants Found and Assumed
Of our victims involved in fireground operations, we can say that six or more occupants were rescued in the incidents presented. Unfortunately none of them were directly involved in the successful rescue of any occupants. By understating the related investigation reports we can bridge the gap of information between on-duty death announcement and news of each tragedy. Here is how:
Of those that died while operating inside a burning building we can only say that four were rightly involved in a rescue attempt. The first, the firefighter in Maryland who responded on the special unit, was moving ahead of the engine company and up to the second floor where an occupant was trapped. He was killed, as was the occupant, prior to the rescue. The second in Massachusetts involves the victim being killed in a collapse while looking for an occupant that was not inside. In this incident there was repeated insistence that an occupant was still inside and that insistence led to the victim being part of a second search. The remaining two are included simply by obvious intent based upon the structure occupancy. One was in New York and involved a 21-story residential high-rise. Obviously the search of a high-rise is considerably different from a single-family dwelling so it makes sense to consider the New York high-rise still occupied when the victim arrived and when he was killed. Unfortunately this cannot be firmly recorded as there was no civilian fatality in the fire apartment. The same applies to the incident in Ohio which involved a five-story residential dwelling. The victim in this case was searching apartments on the fifth floor when he fell into an open elevator shaft. Again there was no civilian fatality but we can say that this and the New York fatality are similar to the ones from Maryland and Massachusetts on the simple generalization that it is highly likely that occupants were still inside when the victims arrived on the scene.
If you agree with only four being directly involved in a rescue attempt you might wonder why the others wouldn’t be considered the same way. The answer to this lies in the greater details of each one of those fatalities. In Kansas (Incident No.1) the victim had exited the structure with a dog and became disoriented after he went back inside. No occupants were inside. In Maryland (Incident No.2) the victim arrived on a later alarm assignment. There were occupants rescued but not by the victim or his company. In Texas (Incident No.5) the victim was reportedly sent back inside to look for occupants before he was killed in a collapse. He arrived on the scene as part of the fourth-alarm assignment. In Ohio (Incident No.6) the incident commander was notified that all occupants were accounted for. In New York (Incident No.8) the victim arrived with a mutual aid truck company; there were no details on occupants. In North Carolina (Incident No.10) the fire occurred in an occupied office building, but the victim and his company were tasked with operating a hoseline when the engine company had to leave. In Texas (Incident No.11) the victim was assigned to fire attack before he became separated from others while withdrawing from the building. The structure was an unoccupied assembly hall in the late evening hours. (for Incident numbers see Part II)
But why not include Texas in the examples of direct involvement? Because the Texas firefighter fatality has become centered on the report that the incident commander ordered the firefighters back inside, a point which he refutes. Unfortunately the department in question did not have the ability to record fireground audio transmissions and we may never know what was really said.
In considering each of these and their respective reports we learn that while they are all listed as having been involved in a search the direct connection does not exist. They were either not on the initial alarm; were assigned to duties differing from USFA reporting; or in hindsight had no occupants to rescue. This is a fine line between fact and emotion that we need to be constantly aware of. On the side of service, we can say with assurance that each victim was operating in the highest tradition of the fire service, to protect and save lives in relation to the scene they each faced. On the other side, as a learning point, we have to acknowledge areas of mistakes, error and information that they and everyone else on the scene were unaware. The hindsight here is not to point out those mistakes and errors but to give us a better understanding of our on-duty death data. We must also remember that with regard to hindsight neither the victims nor those operating on the fireground had such a luxury.
As we know and see too much, the availability of social media and the internet has made it easy for someone to see a fireground photo or video and throw out an unfounded comment on the actions of the subject(s) usually based on the fear of firefighters being killed. A photo of a firefighter on the roof of a burning building usually evokes statements of ‘this is why we’re killing firefighters’ and the like. A video of a firefighter performing vent, enter, search (VES) is usually met with widespread criticism by some in the range of it being a very dangerous tactic to the assumption that the occupant inside is more than likely already dead.
By reading deeper our fatality data, with the investigation reports, we have a better understanding of how firefighters are dying. We can dismiss the fear-mongering with sensible education and call attention to areas of progress and greater attention in our LODD reduction efforts. Here are some of those areas based on the data and time period presented.
- Zero firefighter deaths in abandoned/vacant buildings
- Zero firefighter deaths related to VES
- One firefighter death as a result of running out of air
- One firefighter death related to being lost
- Two firefighter deaths related to structural collapse
- Mayday or Urgent radio transmission used in 12 of the 13 incidents
- Four firefighters killed during training
- Two firefighters killed in commercial structures without sprinklers
- One victim operating without a radio (left inside apparatus)
- Uncoordinated fireground tactics
- Poor communication
- Size-up errors
- Poor accountability
As you can see we currently have six years of data regarding firefighter deaths while doing a search for occupants and not one of those occurred in an abandoned building. Six years and not one firefighter killed while making entry into a second floor window to search for an occupant. Six years of progress, to date. What is troubling is that there are deaths that occurred based on conditions that are within our grasp to change. Poor or uncoordinated tactics; poor communication and poor accountability are often repeated contributing factors in most fatality investigations. More alarming, since those have become stale to most readers, are the deaths that occur during training.
The picture becomes clearer once we learn the details. Areas of progress maybe due to various initiatives, rules and training, but we cannot know for sure because we have nothing to serve as a valid litmus test. A few things are certain though; we have made significant progress in reducing our deaths in abandoned buildings and in the area of freelancing. The data alone shows it but in our fast-click world it largely goes unnoticed. We also don’t have a high number of firefighters being killed as they entered a heavily charged room. None of this is to say that we should drop the proper training and caution; on the contrary we need to continue with such. But, we do need to properly question those who immediately place fear at the forefront in dismissing certain tactics. When we do that, we begin a dialogue into preconceived notions and actual facts where at the end we will all be wiser.