Family Sues Program After Texas Firefighter's Death

Aug. 02--The family of an Atascocita volunteer firefighter who died in 2012 during a training program is claiming that neglectful techniques and procedures used by course organizers led to his death.

According to a lawsuit filed Thursday in a Beaumont state court, organizers of "smoke divers" -- an optional, multi-task course designed to teach firefighters how to survive if their oxygen tanks run out during a blaze -- "chose to ignore routine safety concerns and obvious signs of heat emergencies," that cost 46-year-old Capt. Neal Wade Smith his life.

Touted as an advanced training exercise, the "smoke divers" course is taught in a six-story tower structure in Beaumont. Smith, a U.S. Navy veteran who spent five years with the Atascocita Volunteer Fire Department, died on Sept. 16, 2012, after suffering from severe hyperthermia. Smith became unresponsive after completing a drill and went into cardiac arrest.

Physical demand

The lawsuit -- filed by the family against the training program's sponsor, East Texas Fireman's and Fire Marshal's Association, a non-profit organization, as well as other firefighters training groups and individuals who ran the course -- claims that organizers and instructors knew the high risk for heat-related injuries but neglected to set up protocols to properly address them.

Three other students in Smith's class were evacuated for medical emergencies, at least one also suffered a heat-related injury.

Instructors also pushed students even when they complained of heat stress and used "fraternity-style hazing" as part of their training practices, according to the lawsuit.

"A legitimate training program for firefighters will obviously involve some level of difficult activities because the nature of the job is difficult," said Adam Milasincic, a lawyer from the Houston-based law firm representing the family. "But these folks went far above and beyond that, using tactics that everyone from the (state) fire marshal's office to the federal government to anyone with common sense would condemn and have condemned as totally out of line."

Following Smith's death, the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health investigated the incident. In their 2013 report examining Smith's death, state investigators found that the training course did not follow nationally recognized procedures and standards, in areas of risk management, safety and the "rehabilitation" of those who have gone through physically demanding exercises.

Pending outcome

Investigators also noted that the course's instructors used "various means to raise the students' stress levels," such as throwing firecrackers at them, playing loud music and yelling.

"Really the point of the program became more about proving how tough you had to be to earn this patch for your uniform than it was to learn about how to safely swap out your oxygen tank in an emergency situation," Milasincic said.

According to the smoke divers course website, the training was not offered in 2013 pending the outcome of the investigation. No information on the site indicated whether it would take place this year. Officials and course instructors with the East Texas Fireman's and Fire Marshal's Association could not be reached for comment. Authorities with the State Firemen's and Fire Marshal's Association and the Industrial Safety Training Council, which the operates the facility where the course is held and is also named in the suit, said they had not yet received the lawsuit and could not comment at this time.

The family is seeking more than $1 million in damages.

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