Accident Scene Safety: Case Studies From The Field

Recently in Emergency Vehicle Operations columns, we completed a series of reports on apparatus rollovers. As with apparatus rollovers, operations along the nation's highways kill and injure a high percentage of firefighters each year.

With that in mind and following that same format, we are going to examine firefighter line-of-duty deaths that occur during operations on and around freeways, interstates and other highways. Prevention of secondary collisions and setting up a safe work environment for all emergency responders will be covered in this series of columns.

As with the series on apparatus rollovers, we will start with case studies of incidents in the recent past that cost the lives of firefighters working along highways, then offer lessons that were learned or reinforced. Also, there will be a review of the proper procedures to follow when setting up operations along a highway, as well as apparatus placement that will provide a safe effective work environment for emergency responders.

Photo by Michael Wilbur
Fire department operations conducted along the nation's highways are extremely dangerous. In this photo, the danger is compounded by an overpass - civilian drivers go from sunlight to darkness, then suddenly come upon an emergency scene. It is the incident commander's responsibility to set up a safe work zone for emergency personnel.

The first incident occurred on Jan. 5, 1999, in Mississippi. A 51-year-old volunteer firefighter was killed when a car struck him as he was refilling a water tanker (tender). The incident occurred at approximately 7 P.M. The tanker's lights blinded the driver of the car. The firefighter was not wearing reflective material at the time he was struck. The firefighter's wife is also a volunteer firefighter and was on the scene at the time of the fatal incident.

A 68-year-old volunteer firefighter from South Carolina was fatally injured on Sept. 27, 1999, while directing traffic around an earlier traffic collision. He was positioned just north of the collision scene. The weather was rainy and the firefighter was wearing bright yellow rain gear and using a stop/slow sign. He was struck by an 18-wheel truck that also hit a fire department vehicle, then left the scene. Firefighters were notified by another truck driver that the firefighter was down. They went to his aid and administered CPR and other medical care. Police reported that the truck driver was operating his vehicle at a reckless speed. According to the certificate of death, a cerebral contusion and edema due to blunt force trauma to the head caused the fatal injury.

An 80-year-old volunteer fire police officer was fatally injured on Oct. 29, 1999, in Pennsylvania as he directed traffic around the scene of a structure fire. He was struck by a passenger car and sustained multiple injuries. He was transported to the hospital, where he was placed on a ventilator, but died 15 days later. At the incident scene he was wearing a reflective safety vest and helmet and using a wand-type flashlight to direct traffic. The driver of the passenger vehicle was cited for careless driving and failure to obey an authorized person directing traffic.

On Sept. 17, 2000, a Maryland volunteer firefighter was struck by a car while attempting to cross Interstate 83 to help accident victims. The 62-year-old firefighter had responded in his personal vehicle to the scene of a vehicle accident with rollover and rescue on I-83, just south of the Maryland-Pennsylvania state line. The firefighter was flown by helicopter to a trauma center, where he died several hours later.

A 42-year-old career firefighter in Oklahoma was fatally injured on Aug. 5, 1999, on an interstate highway. The firefighter was a member of a squad company that had been dispatched to a report of a motor vehicle collision on I-40 in Midwest City. The road was wet from rain, which had just begun to fall again. A ladder company also was dispatched to the call. The squad arrived on the scene and discovered that the collision was minor. The ladder arrived and was positioned east of the squad to divert traffic away from the incident scene; all of the unit's emergency lights were operating.

Approximately two minutes after arriving on the scene, the ladder was hit from behind by a passenger vehicle. Firefighters dismounted the ladder apparatus to check on the condition of the civilian driver. The ladder firefighters were joined by the squad firefighter, who had heard the collision. After the patient from the second collision was moved to an area that was thought to be safe (between the ladder apparatus and a wall), the officer of the ladder company walked farther east of the accident in an attempt to wave traffic away from the scene of both collisions.

At this point, the driver of another passenger vehicle lost control and the car spun into the space between the ladder apparatus and the retaining wall. The squad firefighter placed himself between the oncoming car and the driver of the car that had collided with the ladder apparatus. He was struck and fatally injured. Two other firefighters and the driver of the car that hit the ladder apparatus were also injured. The injured received immediate medical care on the scene, enroute to the hospital and at the hospital. The squad firefighter died as the result of head injuries on Aug. 8, 1999.

In the next column we will take an in-depth look at the incident in Midwest City, OK. I would like to thank and the U.S. Fire Administration for providing the case study information used in this month's column.

Michael Wilbur, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an FDNY lieutenant in Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx and a firefighter in the Howells, NY, Fire Department. He is an adjunct instructor at the New York State Academy of Fire Science and the Orange County Fire Training Center. Wilbur has developed and presented emergency vehicle operator courses throughout the country and has consulted on a variety of fire apparatus issues.