LINE-OF-DUTY DEATHS: an analysis

BY LEIGH T. HOLLINS

As a chief officer and fire instructor, I share a mission with many others in the fire service. This mission is twofold: (1) to see that the units under my command get to go home to their spouses, children, and other loved ones and (2) to educate others so that they may do the same. In this way, the cycle will repeat itself: Take care of your own, and teach others.

My approach to realizing this mission is to study the case histories available in various books and magazines, on video, and on the Internet and to share what I learn. Some of the information available is “watered down” for liability reasons, and some of it is “in the sunshine,” meaning that all the facts are included so that readers can draw their own conclusions.

Another critical component of my research has been to talk to those who have been involved in line-of-duty death incidents to gain their perspectives. This information is invaluable and provides a “humanistic” aspect. It allows us to relate it to our particular situation and to offer “first-hand” knowledge to those to whom we may be presenting the information. All the information must be “absorbed” before we can determine what part of it can be used to prevent our line-of-duty death and the deaths of fellow firefighters.

Prevention is a difficult subject, because most of the time it cannot be said with certainty that a firefighter’s death was prevented. In most cases, the only definitive way to determine if prevention is working is to compare statistics over a specified period of years with those of a prior similar period of time. Keep in mind, however, that other factors may skew the statistics. They include multifirefighter fatality incidents in a certain year, changes in the total number of firefighters at risk, mandatory safety standards that have been adopted and implemented, the agency preparing the statistics, and the consistency of the criteria.

THE PROBLEM

The problem of line-of-duty deaths is a serious one. It happens in the largest cities, in the suburbs, on the farms, and in small-town America. There are approximately 1.1 million firefighters in the United States (about 300,000 of them career firefighters). No firefighter is exempt from the potential of a line-of-duty death. Certain tasks and positions within the fire service may be less hazardous, but no one totally escapes the risk-not the battalion chief, pump operator, or fire investigator.

DATA ANALYSIS

From the statistical data available, we can learn much about the problem in the United States and can identify specific major areas in which to concentrate our efforts. This article focuses on two time periods: calendar year 1998, the most recent data available from the United States Fire Administration (USFA), and the 20-year period from 1977 to 1996, a historical perspective based on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) data (see Table 1 below).

Table 1 identifies the three major categories of line-of-duty deaths: (1) cardiovascular, (2) motor vehicle-related, and (3) nonvehicle-related trauma and asphyxiation.

Looking closely at the year 1998, we see the following additional details about the 91 line-of-duty deaths:

  • Forty-one percent were career firefighters, 59 percent were volunteer firefighters, 51 percent were urban/suburban firefighters, and 49 percent were rural/wildland firefighters.
  • The deaths occurred at 79 separate incidents.
  • Ten multifirefighter fatal incidents killed 22 firefighters.
  • Twenty-three percent of the deaths occurred during nonemergency activities.
  • Seventy-seven percent occurred during emergency activities. Forty-seven percent of them occurred during fireground operations.
  • Thirteen percent occurred during training.

Of the fireground deaths, 40 percent occurred at residential properties; 36 percent were at commercial/manufacturing/storage properties. Forty-two percent occurred while advancing lines/attacking fire.

These figures include the three major categories, but this “microscopic” look at the 1998 line-of-duty deaths can also provide us with clues to the key issues we need to address to prevent these deaths. The greatest percentages of death are occuring (1) during emergency operations (including responding/returning), (2) during fire-related incidents, and (3) while directly involved in hoseline advancement and/or fire attack.

From the 1998 data, we also see that the split between career and volunteer deaths is close to equal, as is that between urban/suburban and rural/wildland firefighter deaths. One factor that needs to be considered, though, is that although the career/volunteer line-of-duty deaths is split at 41/59 percent, the total number of career/volunteer firefighters in the United States is split at 24/76 percent. Therefore, the risk to career firefighters appears to be greater. The facts bear this out, but it really doesn’t matter if we treat it as a moot point. Our mission is to prevent firefighter deaths. Period. We cannot concentrate on career/volunteer or urban/rural as the problem. We need to concentrate on the major categories and the key issues that have been identified, along with the risks faced by individual departments or regions.

To put it in proper perspective, wildland firefighters don’t need to be concerned with tenement firefighting safety, and urban firefighters don’t need to concern themselves with how to properly deploy an emergency fire shelter. In a perfect world, what we would need would be physically fit firefighters who respond to and from calls safely, in safe vehicles/apparatus, who are educated and experienced, who work as safely as possible, and who are commanded by those with a very high regard for firefighters’ well-being.

This does not mean that we need all firefighters to be in good enough physical shape to be able to qualify for the Olympics, to drive a heavily reinforced tank as cautiously as a senior citizen, to have a four-year college degree, and to have General Patton as their leader. It means that we need to do everything within reason to accomplish our goals related to the major categories and key issues identified to prevent these line-of-duty deaths. In August 1995, Fire Engineering published an issue with a white, blank cover depicting the fact that no emergency scene is 100 percent safe, in that 100 percent of the personnel on the scene do everything 100 percent safely. I am trying to convey the same message with the above analogy.

THE MAJOR CAUSES OF LINE-OF-DUTY DEATHS

Cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is the primary cause of line-of-duty deaths. We can control some of the factors leading to cardiovascular disease; others we cannot. We, as individuals, cannot affect factors such as heredity, age, race, and gender. However, factors such as smoking, diet, and lifestyle are personal choices individuals must evaluate and control.

Some states and governing bodies are attempting to influence some of these factors as they pertain to firefighters. In the state of Florida, for example, firefighters must meet a multitude of physical requirements to be eligible for firefighter certification, and firefighters must sign an affidavit stating that they have been smoke-free for one year prior to being eligible for employment as a certified firefighter. The problem in Florida’s case is that volunteer firefighters are not held to the same standard. My guess is that the same can be said in most other states. For this reason, the individual fire agencies must address many of these cardiovascular issues such as fitness programs, annual physicals, and agility and fitness testing and standards.

Other issues indirectly related to the cardiovascular problem include physical and mental stress, the weight of equipment worn by firefighters, on-scene rehabilitation protocols, the call load, and even the physical makeup of the district (mountainous or flat, single-story or multistory, and so on). Of course, these four paragraphs touch only the surface of the cardiovascular issue. We can increase our knowledge in this area by consulting the multitude of information available in various fire journals, books, videos, and on-line resources.1

Several NFPA standards also address firefighter physical fitness and safety, including NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program-1997. The information available on this subject should be thoroughly reviewed and the necessary programs implemented so that the number of firefighter deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease can be decreased.

Motor vehicle-related deaths. Motor vehicle-related injuries kill the second greatest number of firefighters in the United States. These incidents include single-vehicle accidents, two-vehicle collisions, multiple-vehicle collisions, firefighters’ being struck by vehicles, and firefighters’ falling from moving apparatus. The vehicles involved are firefighters’ personal vehicles, department staff vehicles, fire/rescue apparatus, and civilian vehicles of all types. This area of concern cannot be 100 percent controlled. Sometimes, even the safest vehicle operators in the safest vehicles are involved in fatal accidents. What we can do to reduce motor vehicle-related firefighter deaths is to initiate programs that address each problem area and to learn from past incidents which could have been prevented and implement and enforce appropriate policies to prevent these actions/circumstances from being repeated.

A look at some recent headlines shows that the problem is widespread and common. Unfortunately, the list goes on and on:

  • “Indiana Fire Captain Dies from Crash Injuries”-11/99
  • “Pennsylvania Firefighter Dies After Falling Off Truck”-11/99
  • “Veteran Texas Fire Captain Dies After Collision”-10/99
  • “California Firefighter Killed After Being Struck by Fire Truck”-10/99
  • “South Carolina Volunteer Firefighter Killed by Hit and Run Driver”-09/99
  • “Ohio Crash Kills Firefighter Responding to Fire Station”-09/99

We do not need to explore these individual incidents any further. What we need to do is to look at the problem as a whole and find ways to fix it. In the category of motor vehicle-related incidents, a great number of issues must be addressed, including operator licensing, background checks, driver training, apparatus operator annual recertification, department rules and regulations, state laws, national standards, apparatus- and traffic-control devices, and engineering controls.

Each state has separate licensing requirements department personnel must meet. The challenge is to verify that all personnel are properly licensed for the type of vehicle they will be operating. As an example, in the state of Florida, gross vehicle weight is one component applicable to operator licensing for commercial vehicles. However, firefighters have been given a special exemption. This can be good and bad. It may appear as a good thing, because it makes it easier for firefighters to obtain the legal license to drive fire apparatus. On the other hand, should the driver of a 40,000-pound fire truck be required to have essentially the same license that’s required to operate a 3,000-pound car? I don’t think so. The state is never going to ensure that a person is totally qualified to operate a fire truck, even without exemption. The key is the quality and quantity of the training provided by the fire department.

Background checks are also important. This may seem to some that “big brother is watching over you”; but, again, the challenge is to verify that personnel are properly licensed and that they operate vehicles in a safe manner. If a person has a history of careless and/or reckless driving, this issue is even more important when that person is operating fire department vehicles with other people aboard. I am not advocating that a person with a couple of infractions on his license be denied “driver status” at the fire department, but appropriate actions should be initiated to ensure safe operation of department and personal vehicles.

A background check would also indicate if a person’s license had been revoked, information the individual may not reveal to the fire department. Driver background checks on entering the fire department and at least annually thereafter are musts. The key here is what you do when problems are discovered. That is up to the individual agencies to decide.

The issue of how to conduct driver training is debatable. Recognized emergency vehicle operator courses are available from various sources. They should be given priority. In addition, NFPA 1002, Standard on Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications-1998, may be used as a guide when establishing specific agency requirements. Whatever the choice, the initial training and certification should be followed up with driver training on the specific apparatus to be operated. The quality of the training is the key to safe operation of apparatus. Simply requiring “hours behind the wheel,” as some departments may, is certainly better than nothing, but the objective is to have experienced operators teach and coach new operators and pass along their knowledge and experience. This should be done off the public roads at first, and then advancing to busier traffic. This training must be documented.

In addition to initial driver training, an annual recertification program for apparatus drivers should be in place. As with initial driver training, programs are available to assist departments with this important component of accident prevention. Although time-consuming, this is an area that can have a very positive impact on the rate of accidents involving fire apparatus. Whatever program the department chooses, this training must be top-quality, and, as noted, all training should be documented. Operator license background checks may be required as part of annual operator recertification.

Compliance with state laws and department rules and regulations will help to reduce the accident rate. Determine what state laws are in place concerning the operation of private vehicles and fire apparatus during emergencies. They will vary widely from state to state; therefore, it is important to identify the specifics and advise operators of them. It has been estimated that 95 percent of all emergency vehicle operators do not know what their responsibilities are under their states’ laws. In Florida, for instance, the statute clearly states that responding emergency vehicles shall “proceed in a manner consistent with the laws regulating vehicular traffic upon the highway of this state.” The statute further states that, “nothing contained herein shall diminish or enlarge any rules of evidence or liability” and that the operator is not relieved from the duty to “drive with due regard for the safety of all persons using the highway.” You interpret it. There is not too much legalese there: Operators must drive within the law, in a safe manner, and are not exempt from liability. In Florida, the defense “I had on my warning lights and siren” doesn’t cut it. I am sure this is true also in other states.

It is up to the individual departments to develop and implement rules and regulations. Keep in mind that having rules on the books that are rarely or never enforced may be as bad as not having any. I don’t mean that it is best not to have them. I am advocating setting reasonable, well-thought-out rules and enforcing them fairly and consistently. In my department, several rules and regulations were developed to prevent motor vehicle-related accidents from reoccurring. They were not implemented haphazardly; almost every one of them was the result of learning from the mistakes of others. These rules and regulations include the following:

  • Drivers must undergo license background checks, submit to drug/alcohol screening if involved in an accident, complete a comprehensive apparatus certification process, and be recertified annually.
  • All incidents are investigated internally.
  • The Safety Committee reviews all incidents.
  • Department personnel do not direct traffic unless absolutely necessary.
  • Department personnel do not sweep streets or clean up wreckage unless absolutely necessary.
  • Apparatus is to be placed between oncoming traffic and the scene whenever possible.
  • Minimum safety gear while working in the roadway consists of bunker pants, boots, and helmet with chin strap secured.
  • Fluorescent cones are placed in the roadway when a supply line is laid.

Various devices can be used to increase safety during vehicle-related incidents. The most common, of course, are the apparatus-mounted visual and audible warning devices. Hundreds of variations are available; they may or may not meet the various recognized standards. Probably more important considerations here are whether they meet your state’s laws and when they should and should not be used. Other types of devices that may be used include traffic preemptive devices that change traffic signals to green in the emergency vehicle’s direction of travel while the signal is red in all other directions, remote buttons in fire stations to preempt nearby traffic signals, and signals to stop traffic when apparatus exit the station. These are all ways to control the traffic while an emergency vehicle is responding.

The last issue relating to motor vehicle-related incidents is the broad category of engineering controls. The most common items in this category are seatbelts and enclosed cabs. As with many things, a combination of engineering and human actions must come together for the control to be successful. There is little benefit in equipping a vehicle or apparatus with seatbelts if no one wears them or if they are worn improperly. Enclosed cabs are great, as long as firefighters don’t jump on the rear step when all the seats are full. Many such features are in place throughout a vehicle or apparatus; the newer the vehicle or apparatus, the more engineered safety features are included. The safety feature is usually there because people were hurt or killed in the past and the feature is designed to prevent a similar situation from occurring again. The key to this issue is to identify the various features, train our personnel to use them properly, and enforce their use.

With few exceptions, the operator is in complete control of how safely a motor vehicle or fire apparatus is operated. However, it takes a whole lot more than a safe driver to reduce motor vehicle-related accidents and deaths. It takes the combined effort of everyone involved in the response to, operation at, and return from an emergency incident to make the process as safe as possible. This includes the lawmakers, standards writers, policy makers, spec committees, administrators, trainers, company officers, and firefighting personnel.2

Nonvehicle-related trauma and asphyxiation. The third major category of firefighter line-of-duty deaths, nonvehicle-related trauma and asphyxiation, encompasses a vast array of situations. A look at some of the recent headlines listed below shows how diverse the causes of death are:

  • “Firefighter Drowns in Pond at Wildfire”-11/99
  • “Live Wire Kills Firefighter at Grass Fire”-10/99
  • “Gas Explosion Injuries Fatal to Firefighter”-08/99
  • “Veteran Fire Captain, Trapped Without Air, Dies”-06/99
  • “Two Firefighters Die in Townhouse Fire”-05/99
  • “Overcome at Brush Fire, Two Firefighters Dead”-04/99
  • “Building Collapse During Fire Kills Three Firefighters”-02/99.

The list could fill several pages. Maybe printing several pages of headlines would wake us up to what is happening. So many different things are causing firefighter deaths in this category that it is hard to focus on one cause. We have all heard the words of Frank Brannigan, “Beware the truss,” and the admonitions of others who have brought us similar warnings.

I think it is great that the word has been spread loud and clear, but can we really set a rule that firefighters do not go on or under a lightweight trussed roof if it has been involved in fire for ‘X’ number of minutes, as some suggest? I, for one, don’t think we can. What we can do is make sure the information is foremost in our minds while battling such a fire and use the information to assist with our tactics and strategic plan. The fact is, these things are going to continue to happen; the most we can do is try our best to keep the numbers as low as we can and learn from others. With this information in mind, let’s briefly review a few incidents and see how we can accomplish our goal of protecting firefighters.

CASE STUDIES

Incident 1
Recently, at a very serious and dangerous restaurant fire in my district, we used the lessons of others to make sure we did all we could to control the fire and come away from it with no injuries or deaths. With the exception of the wall, from where the fire traveled behind a grill to the wood trusses, every bit of fire was in the void space above the ceiling and below the roof. On arrival, the first-due officer thought he had it controlled with an extinguisher. He quickly learned that that was not the case as conditions deteriorated and hoselines were brought into the building. While three crews operated inside the fire building, strategic plans were being implemented outside at command. The plans included the following:

  • Secure gas and power.
  • Determine the type of roof support system.
  • Call for additional resources.
  • Have the communications center advise command at each 10-minute “MARC” (member accountability roll call).
  • Provide ventilation.
  • Set up for a defensive/exterior attack as plan B.
  • Appoint a safety officer.
  • Appoint a RIT (rapid intervention team).
  • Obtain aerial surveillance from the tower ladder.
  • Evaluate the situation often.
  • Remove interior crews if they are not making “headway.”

I am not including this information to give me or our department a pat on the back because both our objectives were met that night. I am including it to show that we learned from others. All the items listed were implemented after learning from others. Yes, some of the items, such as provide ventilation and call for additional resources, are basic knowledge. However, others, like RIT and MARC, we had never even heard of three years ago. That is the message I am conveying here: See what others are doing right, and implement it in your department.

Let’s look at two other incidents that did not turn out as well but that can teach us a tremendous amount of information. This information is based on National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports.

Incident 2
In February 1998, two male volunteer firefighters died of smoke inhalation while trying to exit the basement of a single-family dwelling after a backdraft occurred. A volunteer engine company composed of four firefighters and one driver/operator were the first responders to a structure fire at a single-family dwelling three miles from the fire department. When the engine company arrived, one firefighter onboard reported light smoke showing from the roof. The four firefighters (including Victim #1) entered the dwelling through the kitchen door and proceeded down the basement stairs to determine the fire’s origin. The four firefighters searched the basement, which was filled with a light to moderate smoke.

A few minutes later, a fifth firefighter, from a rescue unit (Victim #2), joined the group. After extinguishing a small fire in the ceiling area, Victim #2 raised a ceiling panel, and a backdraft occurred in the concealed ceiling space. The pressure and fire from the backdraft knocked ceiling tiles onto the firefighters, who became disoriented and lost contact with each other and their hoseline. Two firefighters, located on the basement staircase, exited the dwelling with assistance from two firefighters who were attempting rescue. One firefighter was rescued through an exterior basement door. The two victims’ SCBAs ran out of air while they were trying to escape. Both firefighters died of smoke inhalation and other injuries. Other firefighters made additional rescue attempts, but they failed because of excessive heat and smoke and the lack of an established water supply.

NIOSH investigators concluded that, to prevent similar incidents, fire departments should do the following:

  • utilize the first-arriving engine company as the command company and conduct an initial scene survey;
  • implement an incident command system with written standard operating procedures for all firefighters;
  • provide a backup hose crew;
  • provide adequate on-scene communications, including fireground tactical channels;
  • train firefighters in the various essentials of, but not limited to, how to operate in smoke-filled environments; basement fire operations; dangers of ceiling collapse; ventilation practices; utilizing a second hoseline during fire attack; and identifying prebackdraft, rollover, and flashover conditions; and
  • appoint an incident safety officer.

Incident 3
In December 1998, a county volunteer fire department was dispatched to a reported church fire. The church was built sometime around 1850. Construction consisted of wood balloon-frame walls and a heavy, wood, gabled roof. The first-arriving firefighters observed smoke and fire coming from the rear of the church. After an initial size-up, the chief ordered a defensive attack at the rear of the church. To control extension of the fire, the chief then ordered that a line be taken into the sanctuary to conduct an offensive attack. Before ventilating the roof, the chief ordered firefighters to locate the access hole in the ceiling of the sanctuary to determine if the fire had already extended into the attic area. The access hole was located, and an officer (a 27-year-old captain) climbed a ladder to check the attic area. Without warning, the entire roof collapsed, trapping the victim and nearly trapping two other firefighters.

NIOSH investigators have concluded that, to minimize the chances of similar accidents occurring, fire departments should do the following:

  • ensure that prefire planning and inspections cover all structural building materials (type and age), components, and renovations so the incident command (IC) at the fire scene will have the necessary background information on the structure to make informed decisions and the appropriate plan of attack;
  • ensure that defensive firefighting tactics are suspended before switching the strategic mode of operation to an offensive attack, to avoid opposing streams, and notify all affected personnel of the change in strategic modes;
  • ensure firefighting tactics and operations do not increase hazards on the interior-e.g., hose streams being directed into concealed ceiling spaces, which will add additional weight to the structure, possibly causing it to fail;
  • ensure that all SOPs are updated and adequate for incident command and fireground operations and that all officers and firefighters are trained and knowledgeable in all SOPs; and
  • ensure that all officers and firefighters involved in firefighting, rescue, or other hazardous duty wear and use a personal alert safety system (PASS) device.

Additional information and details concerning these two incidents can be found on-line at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/firehome.html.

Using the information in this article and the various resources mentioned, we need to follow through with “our mission” of taking care of our own and teaching others. This article has shown what is happening. Now you must do everything you can to prevent it from happening to yourself or someone in your department. Use the information that is available, get as much training as you can, attend the conferences, study the case histories, and learn from others. Talk to firefighters from across the nation who have experienced the loss of a brother firefighter firsthand. They have a lot to share, believe me. n

Endnotes

1. Excellent sources of information on firefighter fitness and strength are the following articles that have appeared in Fire Engineering:

  • Fire, Jr., Frank L., “Strength Training for Firefighters,” April 1993.
  • Fire, Jr., “Endurance Training for Firefighters,” April 1994.
  • “A Cooperative Approach to Building a Healthier Fire Service by the Fire Service Joint Labor/Management Wellness/Fitness Initiative,” International Association of Fire Chiefs/International Association of Fire Fighters, Jan. 1998.

2. For additional information concerning apparatus accidents, see “Anatomy of an Accident,” William C. Peters, Fire Engineering, Oct. 1998.

3. Several other excellent resources for additional information on this subject can be found in the following issues of Fire Engineering :

  • Dunn, Vincent, “Firefighter Death and Injury: 50 Causes and Contributing Factors,” Aug. 1990.
  • Manning, Bill, “Killer Complacency,” Editor’s Opinion, Sept. 1996.
  • McCormack, Ray, “50 Ways to Improve Your Personal Safety,” May 1995.
  • McCormack, Ray, “25 Ways for Officers to Improve Company Safety,” Dec. 1996.

LEIGH T. HOLLINS began his career in 1976 at Nottingham Fire Company in Hamilton Square, New Jersey. He currently serves as a battalion chief with the Cedar Hammock and Southern Manatee Fire Districts and is vice president and director of Starfire Training Systems Inc. in Manatee County, Florida. He is a certified firefighter, an EMT, an inspector, a fire officer, and a fire science instructor. He has a college degree in fire science and is the author of numerous fire-related articles, a frequent presenter at the FDIC, a lead instructor for the FDIC’s Hands-On Training program, and a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board and of the FDIC educational committee.

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