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.


Volunteer Firefighter Dies Following Nitrous Oxide Cylinder Explosion While Fighting a Commercial Structure Fire (Case F2003-03)


On Jan. 19, 2003, a 32-year-old volunteer firefighter died while fighting a structure fire at a specialized vehicle restoration shop. Soon after beginning interior attack operations, the fire intensified and rolled over the heads of the four-member crew. Within minutes, the nozzleman had to exit the building due to burning hands and another firefighter took the nozzle. As he was exiting, an air horn was sounded, warning the crew to exit the building. Two of the three remaining crewmembers made it to safety. Less than a minute after they exited, a nitrous oxide cylinder that was attached to a race car in the building exploded. A rapid intervention crew (RIC) was assembled to rescue the missing firefighter (the victim). The RIC made two attempts to rescue the victim, but had to exit because of the intensity of the fire. After approximately 40 minutes of master stream application, three teams entered the structure and found the victim lying near the office door. The alarm for his personal alert safety system (PASS) device was functioning, but was not audible due to his prone position.


Autopsy findings indicate that the cause of death was thermal injuries, with smoke inhalation and blast effect.


  • Fire departments should develop and enforce standard operating procedures (SOPs) for structural firefighting that include, but are not limited to, accountability, rapid intervention crews (RIC) and the incident command system.

  • Fire departments should ensure that a complete size-up is conducted before initiating firefighting efforts, and that risk versus gain is evaluated continually during emergency operations.

  • Fire departments should ensure that team continuity is maintained.

  • Fire departments should ensure that the incident commander maintains the role of director of fireground operations and does not become involved in firefighting efforts.

  • Fire departments should ensure that an adequate fire stream is maintained based on characteristics of the structure and fuel load present.

  • Fire departments should ensure that pre- incident planning is done on commercial structures.

  • Fire departments should establish and maintain training programs for emergency scene operations.

  • Fire departments should review dispatch/ alarm response procedures with appropriate personnel to ensure that the processing of alarms is completed in a timely manner.

  • Manufacturers and researchers should continue to refine existing and develop new technology to track and locate lost firefighters on the fireground.


First-Floor Collapse During Residential Basement Fire Claims the Life of Two Firefighters (Career and Volunteer) And Injures a Career Fire Captain (Case F2002-06)


On March 7, 2002, a 28-year-old volunteer firefighter (Victim 1) and a 41-year-old career firefighter (Victim 2) died after becoming trapped in a basement. Victim 1 manned the nozzle while Victim 2 provided backup on the line. After they entered the structure, the floor collapsed, trapping both in the basement. A career fire captain was injured trying to rescue one of the firefighters. Crewmembers responded immediately and attempted to rescue the victims; however, heat and flames overcame both victims and eliminated any rescue efforts from the garage entrance.


The county medical examiner listed the cause of death for both victims as asphyxia due to the inhalation of smoke and soot.


  • Fire departments should ensure that the incident commander is clearly identified as the only individual responsible for the overall coordination and direction of all activities at an incident.

  • Fire departments should ensure that the incident commander conveys strategic decisions to all suppression crews on the fireground and continually re-evaluates the fire condition.

  • Fire departments should ensure that incident command conducts an initial size-up of the incident before initiating firefighting efforts and continually evaluates the risk versus gain during operations at an incident.

  • Fire departments should ensure that firefighters from the ventilation crew and the attack crew coordinate their efforts.

  • Fire departments should ensure that firefighters report conditions and hazards encountered to their team leader or incident commander.

  • Fire departments should ensure firefighters are trained to recognize the danger of operating above a fire.