Death in the Line of Duty

Editor’s note: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program conducts investigations of firefighter line-of-duty deaths to formulate recommendations for preventing future deaths and injuries. The program does not seek to determine fault or place blame on fire departments or individual firefighters, but to learn from these tragic events and prevent future similar events. NIOSH is a unit of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Firehouse® Magazine is pleased to join with NIOSH in presenting this valuable information. It is important to note that while some incidents that will be described here occurred several years ago, the information presented is valuable today. The accounts that follow are summaries of NIOSH investigations. The complete reports are available on the program website.

Wildland Fire Claims the Life Of 1 Firefighter and Injures Another Firefighter (Case F2000-22)

On March 15, 2000, a 62-year-old male volunteer firefighter (the victim) died from complications due to burns received during a wildland fire operation. The fire started on March 6, 2000, when a property owner burned a brush pile that ignited the surrounding area. (Note: Wind speeds of 21 mph with gusts of up to 36 mph were recorded at the time of this incident.) At approximately 2:41 P.M., Central Dispatch notified the volunteer department of a wildland fire. The chief and Firefighter 1 responded in Engine 1 and were first to arrive on the scene at approximately 2:47. They positioned their apparatus near the origin of the fire on the northwest flank. Engine 2 responded next on the scene, arriving at 2:51. The crew consisted of an engine operator and Firefighter 2, who positioned their apparatus at the head of the fire on the west flank.

At approximately 2:52, Brush Truck 1 arrived on the scene, manned by Firefighter 3, who positioned the apparatus at the northeast flank of the fire. The victim and Firefighters 4 and 5 arrived on the scene by privately owned vehicles (POVs) during the times that Engine 2 and Brush Truck 1 arrived on the scene. Engine 2 was positioned outside of a fence line, at the head of the fire, supplying water to the suppression crew. The suppression crew (the victim, Firefighters 4 and 5, and the engine operator from Engine 2) were using a 1½-inch hoseline to suppress the fire. As the crew moved closer to the fire, the victim was pulling a hoseline so that Firefighter 4 (the nozzleman) could advance the line closer to the fire. The suppression crew decided to cut the fence and drive Engine 2 into the field to attain a better position for fire suppression activities.

After pulling Engine 2 into the field, the crew decided to add another section of hose to extend the hoseline. After the extra section was added, the victim was pulling kinks out of the uncharged hoseline as the fire “shifted” directly toward the suppression crew. Firefighter 4, who was on the nozzle, fled the area as he saw the fire shift and received second-degree burns to his face and neck. As the fire shifted, the victim was caught in the direct path of the fire and received third-degree burns. Firefighter 4 transported the victim to the local hospital by POV. The victim died nine days later from complications due to burns.

According to the medical examiner’s report, the cause of death is listed as sepsis as a result of extensive thermal burns due to a grass fire.


  • Fire departments should ensure that all firefighters receive training equivalent to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Firefighter Level I certification.
  • Fire departments should ensure that all firefighters receive training equivalent to the NFPA Wildland Firefighter Level I certification.
  • Fire departments should ensure that standard operating procedures (SOPs) are developed and followed, and that refresher training is provided.
  • Fire departments should ensure that the incident commander (IC) conveys strategic decisions to all suppression crews on the fireground and continually reevaluates fire conditions.
  • Fire departments should provide fireground personnel with personal protective equipment and monitor to ensure its use.

Firefighter Dies After Roof Collapse Following Roof Ventilation (Case F2002-40)

On Sept. 14, 2002, a 53-year-old male career firefighter died after falling through a roof following roof ventilation operations at a house fire. The victim, who was not wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), was observing another firefighter who was wearing an SCBA while making ventilation cuts. After making the last cut, the victim, who had been covering his face with his hands, told his partner that they had to leave immediately. The firefighters retreated toward the aerial platform, but the victim stopped a few feet from the platform, saying he could not continue. Seconds later, the area of the roof under the victim failed, and he fell through the roof into the structure and the fire. Within minutes, the interior attack crew found the victim and, with the help of the rapid intervention team (RIT), removed him. He was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The cause of death per the autopsy report was smoke inhalation, intra-alveolar hemorrhage and carbon monoxide intoxication (carboxyhemoglobin level, 30.3%).


  • Fire departments should enforce existing standard operating procedures (SOPs) for structural firefighting, including the use of SCBA, the incident command system, truck company operations and transfer of command.
  • Fire departments should ensure that the incident commander (IC) evaluates resource requirements during the initial size-up and continuously evaluates the risk versus benefit when determining whether the operation will be offensive or defensive.
  • Fire departments should develop, implement and enforce SOPs regarding vertical ventilation procedures.
  • Fire departments should review dispatch/alarm response procedures with appropriate personnel to ensure that the processing of alarms is completed in a timely manner and that all appropriate units respond according to existing SOPs.
  • Fire departments should ensure that the IC maintains the role of director of fireground operations and does not become involved in firefighting efforts.
  • Fire departments should ensure that adequate numbers of personnel are available to immediately respond to emergency incidents.
  • Fire departments should consider using a thermal imaging camera as part of the exterior size-up.

Residential Basement Fire Claims Life of Lieutenant (Case F2004-05)

On Jan. 9, 2004, a 45-year-old male career lieutenant (the victim) sustained serious injuries after he partially fell through the first floor while fighting a residential basement fire. The victim was among the first on the scene, and he reported light smoke coming from a two-story, middle rowhouse. The victim entered the structure without his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) to investigate, and reported to the incident commander (IC) that it was a basement fire. The victim exited the structure to assist his crew in advancing a 1¾-inch hoseline into the structure through the front door of the first floor. The victim’s crew protected the first floor and looked for fire extension as another crew attacked the fire through a rear entrance into the basement. The victim exited the structure a second time, presumably for air, and spoke to another member, who was conducting ventilation. The victim went back into the structure and was trapped on his third attempt to exit when he partially fell through the floor. Rescue crews found and removed the victim within minutes and he was transported to an area hospital, where he died from his injuries seven days later.

The medical examiner lists the cause of death as smoke and soot inhalation and thermal burns.


  • Fire departments should require, and all officers should enforce the requirement, that all firefighters wear SCBA whenever there is a chance they might be exposed to a toxic or oxygen-deficient atmosphere, including during the initial assessment.
  • Fire departments should ensure firefighters are trained to recognize the danger of operating above a fire.
  • Fire departments should ensure that team continuity is maintained with two or more firefighters per team.

If you have any questions regarding the NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program, please contact: