Author(s): Rita Fahy, Joseph Molis. Published on July 1, 2019.

Selected 2018 On-Duty Firefighter Fatality Incidents

These incident summaries illustrate some of the issues and concerns in firefighter safety and health.


At approximately 7:45 a.m., a 30-year-old career firefighter arrived at the firehouse for his 24-hour shift. Soon after arriving, he began washing and cleaning apparatus and checking equipment. After morning equipment checks, the firefighter helped move over 200 pounds (90 kg) of trauma kits into a vehicle in the back of the station. A half hour later, he and his truck mates repaired a pullout tray located in an upper storage compartment on the heavy rescue. During the repairs, he was on a ladder and handed down numerous heavy tools and then repaired the pullout tray and placed all items back into the compartment.

For the next three hours, the firefighter performed more vehicle maintenance and then participated in training with five other firefighters. The training evolution consisted of donning structural firefighting protective ensembles, including self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), and performing search training while on air. The members participating then performed low profile and maneuvered through tight spaces under a fire truck while on air. At the end of the drill, the victim had used more than half of his air cylinder and began complaining of chest discomfort.

The training ended around 2 p.m., when the firefighters ate lunch and had some down time in the firehouse. At approximately 7 p.m., the victim took 200 mg of ibuprofen and seemed unsettled for the next few hours. Fellow firefighters observed the victim kneeling on the concrete in obvious discomfort. He stated that he thought he pulled a pectoral muscle. At 10:30 p.m., the victim informed his company officer he was going home before the “pain struck again.” The victim left the firehouse and went home, which was located a mile (1.6 km) down the road.

An hour later, the victim’s wife dialed 911 reporting her husband was unconscious. Fellow firefighters arrived on scene and began advanced life support measures, and he was transported to the hospital, where he died from an acute myocardial infarction.

The fire department does not provide annual physicals for its members but does have a voluntary wellness and fitness initiative.


A local volunteer fire department received calls reporting a dwelling on fire. Firefighters were dispatched at 1:46 p.m. A firefighter with nine years’ experience responded in his personal vehicle to the firehouse, got out of his vehicle, donned his turnout coat and bunker pants, climbed into the front driver’s seat of the engine company, and responded at 1:48 p.m. with another firefighter. The engine arrived in two minutes and the crews encountered a confined cooking fire on the stove.

The driver suffered a medical emergency while sitting in the driver’s seat, never leaving the cab of the truck. Fellow firefighters unfastened his seatbelt and removed him from the cab. They brought him to the ground where they initiated basic life support.

An advanced life support ambulance was dispatched on the initial call and arrived on scene to begin life saving measures. The 64-year-old victim was initially in ventricular fibrillation, and CPR was initiated and sustained using a mechanical CPR device. An intravenous line was established. The victim was intubated in accordance with local protocols and was defibrillated five times. He was transported and treated at the emergency room. Resuscitation efforts ceased just over an hour later.


A 38-year-old firefighter died while performing salvage and overhaul when a ceiling collapsed, trapping him and two other firefighters.

The fire department initially responded with six firefighters to a fire in a single-family, one-story residence. Upon arrival, they encountered a large volume of fire and dark, dense smoke billowing from the attic area. Crews successfully rescued three trapped occupants, removing them from the burning structure during the initial stages of the fire attack. The fire attack quickly transitioned into a defensive operation to extinguish the large amount of fire consuming the structure.

Three hours into the incident, four firefighters entered the structure to perform salvage and overhaul. As they were working in the den, they noticed the ceiling beginning to sag. They immediately turned to exit the room. As they were retreating, the ceiling collapsed. The victim pushed one of his colleagues into a closet, and was credited with saving his life, only to become buried and trapped under the debris himself. The third firefighter called a mayday over the radio and was able to extricate himself from the debris. The fourth firefighter’s leg was pinned under the weight of the roof and ceiling, but his upper torso was located at the doorway leading outside. He was quickly removed from the building by firefighters. The firefighter that was pushed into the closet was safely removed by crews assisting the rapid intervention team (RIT) in locating the victim.

It is important to note that the firefighter who called the mayday provided a good location to the RIT team in his mayday message. He was able to guide rescuers to the victim’s location. The victim’s integrated PASS (personal alert safety system) activated automatically.

Once the RIT team arrived at the victim, they used battery-operated hydraulic rescue tools to raise debris off the victim and extricate him from the rubble. All firefighters were removed from the building nine minutes after the mayday. The victim was immediately packaged and transported to the emergency department by an advanced life support unit. He was pronounced dead at the emergency room. Cause of death was traumatic asphyxia.


Three days into a rapidly escalating wildland fire, an interagency hotshot crew was deployed and tasked with building and preparing a fire containment line for burnout operations. For the next eight days, the crews worked with other hotshot crews to keep the original fire from spreading.

As crews were working in steep terrain, they identified several hazardous snags—dead trees that pose a risk to firefighters through fire or by falling during operations. One tree received extra attention from the hotshots: a 105-foot (32-meter) tall ponderosa pine with a 57-inch (145-cm) diameter that was burning and producing a constant stream of embers, posing significant risk of fire spread.

The entire crew, with the exception of the lead sawyer and a 33-year-old captain, staged uphill in an area of safety. Everyone involved with the operation was briefed on the objectives, and escape routes were identified.

The sawyer and captain planned for the tree to land uphill between other trees, but the tree fell downhill opposite the intended target. The sawyer ran downhill toward his escape route, escaping the falling tree. The captain had already moved 20 feet (6 meters) downhill before the tree fell. As the tree began to fall, he ran for his escape route but the tree struck him, pinning him to the ground.

Fellow hotshots removed him from under the tree and transferred him to a helicopter. He was in cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead shortly after he was loaded onto a helicopter.


Two firefighters were killed in a structural collapse while battling a fire in a four-story mill building that was under renovation.

Numerous 911 calls reported the fire during the late afternoon. The fire originated on the first floor of the 53,000-square-foot (4,900-square-meter) building. The origin and cause of the fire were not reported.

The first arriving unit was the deputy chief. He established command and reported a working fire and communicated a report of people trapped and possibly missing in the building. The building had a sprinkler system, but it was shut off due to previous damage and the ongoing renovations.

Arriving fire companies initiated an interior attack and operations to support a search for possible fire victims. Companies operated for nearly 18 minutes before the chief ordered an evacuation tone because of the rapidly spreading fire, and called for a personnel accountability report. During the evacuation, a mayday was called for a possibly missing firefighter.

The RIT team was activated and began searching for the missing firefighter. A member of the RIT team fell through an unguarded opening from the second story to the first story, but he was able to exit the building on his own. For some time, there was confusion as to how many firefighters were missing, but the mayday issue was resolved, and everyone was accounted for on the fireground. Once the mayday was finally cleared, the incident commander switched to defensive operation due to fire conditions. Several hours into the incident, a large portion of the rear of the building had collapsed.

The following day, nearly 23 hours into the fire, the incident commander met with the building owner and his hired engineer in order to evaluate the structural integrity of the building. A decision was made that firefighters would re-enter the structure to extinguish hot spots on the third and fourth stories that were obscured due to roofing materials obstructing water streams. An aerial platform was raised to a fourth-floor window where two firefighters wearing full protective ensembles and using SCBA exited the bucket, stretching a hand line into the building to search for and extinguish hotspots. The firefighters were told not to go near the previous collapse area. Two more firefighters climbed the aerial platform to assist in operations when the interior crew’s air supply became low, and the two interior firefighters returned to overhauling after replenishing air cylinders. Four firefighters were now inside the building on the fourth floor performing overhaul when a collapse occurred, dropping them to the ground in a pile of debris.

The incident commander immediately called a mayday but a RIT crew had not been established earlier. On-scene firefighters became rescuers, and in approximately 11 minutes two victims were rescued. As rescuers searched for the other two firefighters, who remained buried in the rubble, they could hear their colleagues’ PASS devices deep in the debris. Both were located and extricated approximately 30 minutes after the collapse. Both firefighters died.

The victims included a 50-year-old firefighter with 20 years of experience who suffered multiple blunt-force trauma injuries. The second firefighter was 29 years old and had been a member of the department for seven years. He also died of blunt-force trauma with traumatic asphyxiation.


A 31-year-old captain who was the son of the fire chief was at the firehouse alone preparing for an upcoming company drill. He was wearing his protective ensemble and using SCBA.

The fire chief, driving by the firehouse, saw his son’s truck and stopped to see what he was doing. He opened the front door of the firehouse and heard a PASS device sounding. He found his son unresponsive on the apparatus floor with his face piece off, but wearing his SCBA. The chief immediately requested an advanced life support ambulance.

The victim had been with the department for 15 years and was an active member. He had a pre-existing condition of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolisms. According to his physician, he had been cleared for firefighting duties and activities.


Late at night during a snowstorm, the local fire department was summoned to a residence for a person needing aid for a diabetic emergency. The home was located in a distant, rural part of the response district. A medic unit responded, as well as a captain in his personal vehicle.

While responding, the captain failed to negotiate a 90-degree right turn on an unlit country road. His truck drove off the road through a drainage ditch and into a pond. The 33-year-old dialed 911 as water rushed into his truck. He told the dispatcher what happened and remained on the line as the dispatcher sent additional units to his aid. He removed his seatbelt and was trying to get out of the submerged truck but could not. The dispatcher remained on the phone with the victim until he did not answer.

The medic unit that was sent for the initial emergency call was able to respond after the diabetic patient refused treatment. Arriving on scene, they found the firefighter’s truck 15 feet (4.6 meters) from shore, submerged to the roof with just the light bar sticking out of the water. They began setting up operations and requested appropriate resources. Three firefighters donned cold-water immersion suits, entered the water, and approached the vehicle. They extricated the victim’s body from the car and brought him to shore where the advanced life support medics were waiting. It took approximately 55 minutes from the initial call to the victim’s arrival at the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The medical examiner listed his cause of death as drowning.

The department provided all members with counseling services including the dispatcher who stayed on the phone with him as he attempted to escape from the vehicle.


A 32-year-old assistant chief was at the firehouse cleaning equipment that had been used in a trench rescue earlier in the day. He was found unresponsive in the firehouse bathroom by his coworkers who immediately performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The chief had performed strenuous activity while operating at a technical rescue about two and a half hours prior to his death.

An autopsy was performed on the victim, and post mortem results indicated he had a prior cardiac history of hypertension and coronary artery disease (CAD), including left ventricular hypertrophy (LVH), a risk factor for sudden cardiac death. The autopsy results also indicated that LVH can be caused by hypertension and CAD. The cause of death identified through the medical examiner was most likely hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.

The department indicated it does not have an established wellness and fitness initiative but does provide annual physicals to its members.


A wildland crew was operating at approximately 3,000 feet (915 meters) above sea level, tasked with reinforcing a dozer line and placing a hose lay to support the operation. A large air tanker capable of carrying 19,200 gallons (72,700 liters) of retardant was used to reinforce the dozer line.

During the afternoon, the temperature was 82°F (28°C) with wind blowing from the northwest at approximately 3–5 mph (5–8 kph). All crews had attended a safety briefing before beginning operations. An announcement had been broadcast on the tactical radio warning that air tankers were working in the area. On the third drop from the air tanker, the retardant landed approximately 300 feet (90 meters) outside the target area, away from the dozer line. On the fourth drop, the tanker crew was asked to drop the retardant closer to the dozer line at a minimum altitude of 3,200 feet (975 meters), just 200 feet (61 meters) above the crews. Members of the crew on the ground identified a drop path using a smoke trail for the incoming air tanker.

The pilots’ view was obscured by heavy vegetation, and they did not notice a rise in ground elevation in the flight path, which resulted in the drop being much lower than expected. The drop knocked over an 87-foot (26-meter) Douglas fir tree, striking the crews below. One firefighter, a 42-year-old battalion chief who had responded on mutual aid from another state, was killed instantly, suffering crushing injuries when he was struck by the falling tree. Three firefighters were injured, suffering multiple injuries ranging from broken bones to abrasions and contusions.

According to the investigation report, officers and crews were warned twice that day to avoid being under the air drops. One of the warnings occurred during the safety briefing, and another was broadcast over the tactical radio channel prior to the air drops. It is not known if the ground crews heard the warnings over the tactical channel. Another factor was the equipment used in the tanker. This type of plane did not use gravity to spread the retardant material. The product was released under pressure using compressed air, and the force applied to the treetops at low altitude was enough to take down trees in the drop zone.


At approximately 9 p.m. during a tropical storm, the fire department responded to a car crash on an interstate highway. An engine company with three firefighters and a lieutenant arrived at the scene of the crash in the median of the highway. They properly parked their apparatus and exited the truck.

The driver and the firefighter seated behind him headed toward the victims. As the lieutenant began walking toward the crash, he looked back to check on the firefighter who had been seated behind him and saw him grabbing the medical bag from the truck. He also saw an approaching tractor trailer and yelled a warning to his crew. The firefighter behind the lieutenant jumped back into the cab of the engine. The other three firefighters were all in front or at the front of the truck when it was struck by the tractor trailer.

The engine company lurched forward, striking all three crew members and coming to rest on the lieutenant. Other emergency apparatus were just arriving on scene when the collision occurred, and responders began caring for all the victims, including a prolonged extrication of the driver of the tractor trailer.

The driver of the engine company suffered severe trauma with multiple fractures. The firefighter who jumped into the back into the crew cab of the engine suffered minor injuries. The firefighter who had been seated behind the driver lost his right leg. It was his first shift as a member of the fire department.

The 43-year-old lieutenant, who had been a member of the department for 13 years, died from blunt force trauma. The fire department reported that the crews had followed all standard operating procedures.