Life (And Death) In The Fast Lane – Part 1

At 2:29 A.M. on March 13, 2001, my home telephone rang at the same time the shrill tone of the pager urged my attention. What was so important that both electronic devices had to be used to get the fire chief out of bed?

Photo courtesy of Norfolk Fire-Rescue
Two Norfolk, VA, firefighters survived after being struck by a car while they were working at the scene of a car fire on an interstate highway. The author's account of a real-life "emotional roller coaster ride" that followed the accident sets the stage for this new series of articles on firefighter safety.

I had no doubt that something big (major incident of some type) was brewing. In the previous seven years, I could not recall having this one-two punch hit me in the middle of sleep hours; it was a little like being back on shift. The dispatcher on the telephone was professional in tone and very much to the point. "Fire 1!" (the department's radio designation for the chief). "Yes," I responded to her voice. The dispatcher continued, "Two firefighters have been struck on Interstate 64 and they have been trauma alerted to the hospital."

The pager message seemed to want to confirm what the voice just told me and I tried not to believe either messenger. The digital words confirmed what could become the chief's worst nightmare and fear. The words were undeniable and haunting - "Two members struck by an auto on I-64. They are enroute to Norfolk General at this time." As I was rapidly getting dressed to report to the emergency room, the phone rang for a second time that hectic early morning. This time the voice on the other end of the line was familiar, but was just as blunt as the first person who had called minutes earlier.

One of the on-duty battalion fire chiefs, Marsha Hawkins, was calling me to make sure that I got the very important news and to provide me with an update of the status of our two members. She told me that Firefighter Nick Nelson was in critical condition and may not survive the hour. The other member, Firefighter Milton Odem, was banged up a bit, but would be just fine after a short recovery period.

As my heart was pounding through my chest, I responded to the hospital. It seemed like an eternity before I arrived there to be with my wounded firefighter and brother Nick Nelson. For the past two days, he had attended a command safety seminar at the Fire Training Center with me. Nelson was an excellent firefighter and good (same hometown) friends with one of my aides, Lieutenant (now Captain) John DiBacco (see page 115). Losing him would be extra difficult to deal with for the department and me.

At The Hospital

The scenes in the ER were just what I expected for a trauma alert situation that I have come to know all to well in my 31 years of service. I could only describe the trauma treatment area as organized chaos or perhaps emergency medical poetry to the trained eye. About a dozen of Tidewater Virginia's best doctors and nurses were attending to and surrounding Nelson when I walked into the treatment bay.

My thoughts wandered into what actions I needed to take right away to be of best help to my critically injured warrior. My first thoughts were to start notifications of his family, to make sure that our union president and our governing body were aware of this tragic situation. I remembered that a lot of work had to be completed to protect Nelson's public safety officer death benefits to ensure that his family would be taken care of financially. It was difficult to believe that our department was going to lose an outstanding young member in the line of duty in such a needless way, while I was at the helm. Simply heartbreaking, maybe this was just a nightmare (a very bad dream)!

As I fought my way up to his bedside to say goodbye to a fellow firefighter that I had just met at a command conference, my chest grew tight and breathing became difficult. When I jockeyed into position for an unobstructed view, I realized that he was not on a ventilator (which I was sure that had to be in place by now). That was a surprise. Next, I noticed that he was moving his legs and my thoughts changed just a little; maybe there was a glimpse of hope for him to make it through this tragedy.

When I placed my hand on the top of his right shoulder, he looked at me and spoke. I can still remember his exact words. He said, "Chief, if anyone ever tells you that a really bad hangover is just like being run over by a car, you can tell them that they are full of -!" I don't think that I have ever been happier to hear a firefighter complain to me. Based on the treatment (or lack of), Nelson's presentation and good humor, I knew that everything was going to work out for us.

I wanted to open this article with the real-life "emotional roller coaster ride" that I experienced while I was chief of the Norfolk Fire-Rescue so that I can express and underline the importance of the topic that this series of articles will address. My hope is that no other fire chief ever needs to take this very stressful "ride" by implementing the guidelines that will be discussed.

When we deliver our services out on the street, we often lose sight of the dangers that lurk out there for us all of the time. About 30% of all firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) happen while responding to or returning from alarms. Included in this high percentage of LODDs are the members who are killed while working in the street, such as in the opening case study that you have just read. Considering the sheer number of these needless and preventable accidents and the general severity of them as well, the time is now to take action and make organizational changes that will keep our brothers and sisters safe when they go to work in proximity of vehicular traffic, regardless of the road size or speed limit.

In the first part of this two-part series, I will discuss the details of the Norfolk, VA, case study in detail so that we may learn from the miscues that were made that morning. Then, in part two, the procedural steps that departments must take will be clearly outlined to provide a framework for some departments to develop and implement a highway safety program and for other departments to perhaps update and tune up their existing procedures.

The 4 Causes Of Accidents

By way of a quick review, essentially there are four broad categories that identify how firefighter injuries and fatalities occur. Therefore, the same information can be used to prevent accidents from happening in the first place. Most firefighter injuries and fatalities are highly predictable events and therefore can be prevented. The case study that I will review in this article unfortunately falls into this category.

The four root causes of firefighter accidents and injuries are:

  • 1. Engineering controls
  • 2. Administrative controls
  • 3. Environmental conditions
  • 4. Human factors - performance

By carefully examining each of these four factors, a clearcut determination of most accidents can be identified. Proper and correct identification of accidents will provide departments with perhaps the best tools to prevent reoccurrence of the same situations as well as hold the keys to avoiding new mistakes. Much too often, departments tend to make the same mistakes on a repeated basis without ever learning, or wondering for that matter, how to prevent the behaviors/actions in the first place.

Photo courtesy of Norfolk Fire-Rescue
This is the scene of the motor vehicle accident in which two Norfolk, VA, firefighters were injured. According to the author, the four root causes of firefighter accidents and injuries are engineering controls, administrative controls, environmental conditions and human factors (i.e., performance).

The information that is gained by a formal departmental review will provide a detailed guide for change to prevent reoccurrences of the same or similar mistakes. The accident report should indicate what policies (administrative controls) were broken, or which polices need to be changed or updated. There should be a way for the report to discuss what policies are nonexistent and need to be developed. There should be open and frank discussions about training policies (administrative controls and human factors) of the department and what needs were not being met that allowed the accident to happen. Included in the analysis should be a review of the human factors (both decisions and actions) as a part of the recovery process. Finally, there should be a section that covers all mechanical equipment involved (engineering factors).

Operating At This Alarm

Now back to the operations on Interstate 64. Engine 14 was out the door and underway in less than a minute. The 14's are one of Norfolk's busiest engine companies and the minimum crew of four members was aboard on that shift. Within the fourth minute after the initial car fire dispatch, the lieutenant was reporting on location with fire under the hood of a car.

The vehicle fire just happened to have occurred about a mile from Fire Station 14's quarters. The dispatcher indicated that the car was located in the HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane of the interstate. This fact played a major part in the action that leads up to the firefighters being struck by an oncoming vehicle.

The weather conditions that early morning were difficult at best. A heavy downpour of rain hours before had caused a moderate fog condition. Smoke from the fire laid down at the street level and coupled with the fog caused a great deal of reduced visibility. In fact, the engine operator, Firefighter David Phelps, described the fact that he proceeded past the burning car at about 5 mph because of the very low level of visibility just downwind of the well-involved car.

Engine 14 took a position in the regular (not HOV) westbound lane a few feet past the burning vehicle on the opposite side of a permanently installed concrete "Jersey barrier." After a brief size-up, the company commander, Lieutenant Mike O'Neill, ordered a fire attack with a 13/4-inch preconnected handline. In order to conduct the requested fire attack, the "jump seat" firefighters had to hop over the "Jersey barrier." This perhaps was the last critical decision that was flawed and would be a major factor in the cause of this accident.

Nelson was on the nozzle and started a direct attack on the fire under the hood by directing the stream into the left wheel well of the car. This action had Nelson out into the active lane by about six to eight feet - perhaps the worst place to be on a 55-mph interstate on a very low visibility night. At the same time, Odem was attempting to open the hood of the car to allow unobstructed access to the engine fire. The lieutenant was at the center of the hood to complete the opening process once the release latch was engaged to finish the extinguishment task at hand. By sheer luck, the lieutenant had the only protected position of the three attacking members working at the alarm that morning.

Without warning, another car smashed into the left rear side of the burning car. Now out of control, the striking vehicle continued down the side of the burning car, delivering a glancing blow to Odem. Perhaps he was able to dive into the passenger compartment for protection from the ensuing impact. He was not able to explain what had happen to him at that exact time; simply put, he could not recall this action when asked.

Nelson was not so lucky. He took a direct hit from a car traveling at least 50 mph. He was wearing full personal protective equipment as he was lifted up onto the top of the fender and carried about 50 feet down the highway. Being a highly trained firefighter, Nelson never let go of the nozzle and was pulled off of the car when the line pulled tight. It was at this point that the car ran over both of his legs at the knee. Tire marks were left on his turnout pants and can be prominently seen today.

Once the commotion was over, all three members rushed to Nelson's assistance. O'Neill called into the Communications Center for additional assistance. O'Neill asked for an ambulance for Nelson and a second engine and battalion chief for the fire and accident investigation. As the three members were applying advanced life support care for the injured member, the unthinkable occurred. Yet another vehicle, this time a pickup truck, struck the burning car. By now, the fire was completely consuming the original vehicle, underlining the poor visibility to the oncoming traffic. The pickup pulled off of the road and came to a stop in the breakdown lane behind the car that had struck Nelson. Now the members had to check on the wellbeing of the pickup's driver by going back onto the interstate, which seems to get riskier by the minute.

At about this time, reinforcements began to arrive. The Virginia State Police blocked the travel lane behind the burning car. The ambulance (Rescue 14) arrived in a few minutes to transport Nelson; Engine 9 and Battalion 3 arrived to help stabilize the car fire situation. The 9's were able to quickly extinguish the fully involved car while many more assets arrive to help close down the entire HOV roadway. With the traffic managed properly, the incident was fairly simple to handle and bring under control.

Aftermath Of The Injuries

Nelson was admitted into the hospital for treatment. In fact, he took up residence there for the next few weeks. He was diagnosed with a broken pelvic bone and severely sprained knee ligaments. His doctors (along with the fire chief) were amazed by the moderate nature of the human damage from such a horrible mechanism of injury. Within six weeks, he began to show up at the station before and after physical therapy.

Nelson returned to duty a few months later, to an outpouring of support by the community. In fact, the State Secretary of Public Safety, John Marshall, traveled from Richmond to visit him in the hospital. Considering that this had never happen before, it was quite an impressive visit by a state cabinet member.

The close to Nelson's story took an unexpected twist a few months after his reported complete recovery. The only explanation must have been some sort of head trauma that was not detected by the hospital. Firefighter Nick Nelson has become Officer Nick Nelson - he left the fire service to pursue policing as a career.

Odem was treated and released from the hospital the same morning. After just six or so shifts, he was fully recovered and back to full duty. As part of the recovery process, a detailed training package was developed by O'Neill and presented personally to all of the operating troops in hopes of preventing any reoccurrences of this near disaster. Also, the department was making several major changes to improve the safety of the members that must operate out on the street everyday. Each of those items will be covered as a separate topic in part two of "Life (and Death) in the Fast Lane." Until next time, be safe out there!

Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the city manager and public safety director for the City of Dothan, AL. He is a 31-year fire-rescue veteran, serving in many capacities and with several departments. Rubin holds an associate's degree in fire science from Northern Virginia Community College and a bachelor's degree in fire science from the University of Maryland, and he is enrolled in the Oklahoma State University Graduate School Fire Administration Program. Rubin is a 1993 graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program and holds the national Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) certification and the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He serves on several IAFC committees, including a two-year term as the Health and Safety Committee chair. Rubin can be reached at