NIOSH Releases Report on Career Firefighter Death after Partial Structural Collapse in Texas

Washington, D.C. - On February 11, 2002, a 42-year-old male career firefighter (the victim) was killed and another firefighter was injured in a partial structural collapse while performing suppression operations at an apartment complex under renovation. The victim and three crew members were exiting the complex through a breezeway that connected the fire structure to an uninvolved structure when a section of brick veneer from the uninvolved structure collapsed onto the victim and the injured firefighter. The injured firefighter called for help and was freed by firefighters. A personal accountability report (PAR) was called and it was determined that the victim was missing. A second search found the victim unresponsive and without a pulse beneath a pile of bricks. The victim was extricated, given emergency medical treatment, and transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

On February 12, 2002, the United States Fire Administration notified NIOSH of this fatality. On March 4-6, 2002, two Safety and Occupational Health Specialists and the Team Leader of the Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program investigated this incident. Interviews and meetings were conducted with the Chief of the department, the Chief of Training, members of the Training Division, firefighters from the department who were on the scene and directly involved in this incident, the presidents and representatives of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) and the Black Professional Firefighters Association (BPFFA). The NIOSH team visited the incident site and reviewed copies of witness statements, training records, standard operating procedures (SOPs), dispatch logs, fire/arson investigation reports, building blueprints, video footage, and a map of the fire scene.

NIOSH investigators concluded that to minimize the risk of similar occurrences, fire departments should:

  • Fire departments should establish and monitor a collapse zone to ensure that no fire fighting operations take place within this area as part of defensive operations.
    During fire operations, two rules exist about structural collapse: (1) the potential for structural failure always exists during a fire, and (2) a collapse danger zone must be established. Due to the renovation activities, the fire building was unstable and began to collapse early in the fire operations. The sheetrock had been removed from the walls of this frame structure leaving its structural members vulnerable to the rapid spread of fire. A defensive attack was declared soon after fire suppression activities began. Part of a defensive strategy is establishing, and moving firefighters outside of, a collapse zone. A collapse zone is an area around and away from a structure in which debris might land if a structure fails. This area should be equal to the height of the building plus have an allowance for debris scatter. Due to its proximity to the fire building, the breezeway in question would have been within the collapse zone; however, firefighters used the breezeway for entry and exit of the courtyard.
    Use of a master stream such as a deck gun presents a serious collapse danger. The average master stream delivers 500 gpm into a burning building - 2 tons of water per minute.2 The force of the high-pressure streams and the weight of the water poured into a structure weaken it.2 The Fire Marshal's investigation concluded that as collapses occurred in the fire building, the (horizontal) water pipes in the attic pulled at the 90-degree fittings behind the brick wall of the southwest wing, causing a partial collapse of the brick veneer. After the collapse of the brick wall, it was revealed that the copper water pipes had been pulled out at least 10 inches from their original position.

  • Fire departments should ensure that an Incident Safety Officer, independent from the Incident Commander, is appointed and on scene early in the fire operation.
    According to NFPA 1561, Sec. 4.1.1, the Incident Commander is responsible for the overall coordination and direction of all activities at an incident. This includes overall responsibility for the safety and health of all personnel and for other persons operating within the incident management system. Whereas the Incident Commander (IC) is in overall command at the scene, certain functions must be delegated to ensure that adequate scene management is accomplished. According to NFPA 1500, Sec. 6-1.3, "As incidents escalate in size and complexity, the incident commander shall divide the incident into tactical-level management units and assign an incident safety officer to assess the incident scene for hazards or potential hazards." The incident safety officer (ISO) is defined as "an individual appointed to respond to or assigned at an incident scene by the incident commander to perform the duties and responsibilities specified in this standard. This individual can be the health and safety officer or it can be a separate function." NFPA 1521, Sec. 2-1.4.1 states that "an incident safety officer shall be appointed when activities, size, or need occurs." Each of these guidelines complements each other and indicates that the incident commander is in overall command at the scene, but oversight of all operations is difficult. On-scene firefighter health and safety is best preserved by delegating the function of safety and health oversight to the ISO. In this incident, a designated safety officer was dispatched on the second alarm and arrived on the scene shortly after the fatal collapse.

  • Fire departments should ensure consistent use of personal alert safety system (PASS) devices at all incidents.
    PASS devices are electronic devices worn by the firefighter that emit a loud and distinctive sound (alarm) if the firefighter is motionless for more than 30 seconds. There are several types of PASS devices available. One type is integrated into the SCBA and is activated when the SCBA air cylinder is turned on. Manual or secondary PASS devices are also used throughout the fire service. The latter devices require the firefighter to actively turn on the device as needed. All firefighters should be equipped with a PASS device and instructed to activate the device immediately upon entering hazardous areas. In this incident the victim had an integrated PASS device that was not activated because he was not using his SCBA. He also had a secondary, manual PASS device which had not been activated.

For the full report, visit http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/face200207.html.

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