Death During Search, 2010 to Present, Part I

Fatalities while searching for occupants

By Bill Carey

Originally published 17 August 2015.

This will be a three-part series looking at the firefighter fatality data from 2010 to present, focusing on those victims who died while searching for occupants. The first part will introduce the data and go into detail on the general numbers as well as the cause and nature of death and the fire buildings. The second part will look at the fires and firefighters in each incident and their related NIOSH investigation reports. The final part will review contrasts between USFA data and NIOSH reports, summarize the findings and present items for further discussion and investigation.

From 2010 to 2015, to date, 20 firefighter on-duty deaths have been recorded under the activity type “Search and Rescue”. Of those 20, 13 victims were involved in firefighting operations. To better understand the data presented in the general reporting from the United States Fire Administration, a breakdown of the details is presented. It is important to state that this is to give scrutiny to the data and not to lessen in any way the measure of sacrifice and commitment to service that each fallen firefighter has given. When we probe the material behind our fatalities we gain a better understanding and appreciation of what transpired and are able to make better contributions towards the efforts in reducing firefighter on-duty deaths.

Using the USFA activity type within the five year period 20 listings were presented. Of those 20, and for the purpose of discussion focusing on firefighting operations, seven are dismissed. Their details are:

  • 23-year old West Virginia volunteer firefighter killed during a swiftwater rescue
  • 51-year old New York volunteer firefighter killed during a confined space rescue
  • 33-year old Mississippi volunteer firefighter killed during a water rescue
  • 50-year old Indiana volunteer firefighter killed during technical rescue training
  • 51-year old Pennsylvania industrial firefighter killed during SCBA training
  • 37-year old Alabama volunteer firefighter killed during search for outside fire
  • 48-year old Missouri career firefighter killed in a secondary building collapse, not fire-related

In those above it is easy to see the activity type relationship in situations where lives are in danger, as in the case of water rescues and a building collapse. The questionable contrast arises when the activity type is listed to include the activity during the training event in which the firefighter died. The Indiana victim was involved in technical rescue training when he suffered a heart attack and passed away the next month [1]. The Pennsylvania firefighter was participating in SCBA training at a community college in relation to joining an industrial fire brigade when he collapsed and died [2]. This reinforces the point that one should not take numbers alone as the solitary evidence of how firefighters died in various activities.

General Dissection

Of the remaining fatalities nine were from career departments and four from volunteer departments. The average age is 45; the youngest victim was 25, the oldest, two, were 54. Fatality investigation reports either from the victim’s department or the NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program are not available for each but for those that are the range of experience of the victims is between six years to over 28 years.

In the range of years selected here are the numbers of fatalities:

  • 2010: 1
  • 2011: 4
  • 2012: 0
  • 2013: 3
  • 2014: 4
  • 2015: 1, presently

The majority of rank among the victims is Firefighter, not surprisingly. One victim is presented in narratives as a Fire Apparatus Operator, but for this account is recorded as Firefighter. The other ranks include Lieutenant and Captain.

  • Firefighter: 9
    • Career: 6
    • Volunteer: 3
  • Lieutenant: 3
    • Career: 2
    • Volunteer: 1
  • Captain: 1
    • Career: 1
    • Volunteer: 0

Cause and Nature of Death does not vary greatly among the victims. Caught or Trapped is the leader among the categories. Nature of Death however has variety.

  • Caught or Trapped: 8
  • Collapse: 2
  • Fall: 1
  • Lost: 1
  • Out of Air: 1
  • Asphyxiation: 3
  • Burns: 5
  • Crushed: 2
  • Trauma: 1
  • Unknown: 2

There is a contrast regarding the one victim whose cause and nature of death is listed as Lost and Crushed. On 22 May 2010 a Kansas career firefighter responded to a fire in a residential dwelling. During initial operations the victim and his officer made entry into the structure, removed a dog to the outside and re-entered to continue the primary search for an occupant reportedly inside [3]. While advancing an uncharged hoseline and continuing the search the victim and officer became separated. The officer told another company that he heard the victim call out “help me.” A search was done but found nothing. During the course of the mayday another company located the victim in a first floor bathroom. The investigation of the incident determined that the victim had vomited in his SCBA facepiece and was overcome once the facepiece was removed. The victim’s death certificate lists the cause of death as exposure to gases of combustion. There is nothing in the report to indicate that the victim was pinned underneath any material. Instead the report states that the rapid intervention team found the victim by the reflection of a handlight beam off reflective trim of the PPE. It is also stated that the victim was found “lying on his back in the make-up room without his helmet, gloves, and facepiece on” and removed without extraordinary difficulty.

This account contrasts to the other crush victim, a Massachusetts career firefighter who was caught in the collapse of a residential structure and pinned by heavy timbers and other building materials [4]. His location and removal required the use of a tracking device and tools to lift debris and breach a wall.

Of those victims Caught or Trapped, four died due to Burns, two due to Asphyxiation and two due to an Unknown nature. Details about those two victims, career Ohio firefighters, were released during writing of this article. In the report provided by the department there is no mention of the cause and nature of death of the victims [5]. A local news report states that the county coroner declared the victims died of thermal burns and exposure to carbon monoxide [6]. In this case, for understanding, we can reasonably add the two Unknowns to Burns.

An anomaly of the Burns category is the death of a Kentucky volunteer lieutenant. On 27 August 2013 the victim and another firefighter spotted a fire in their (residential) neighborhood and went directly to the scene [7]. Believing a child was inside the duo made entry without any personal protective equipment and began a search. A fire department official told local press that the victim was caught in a flashover. He was rescued by the other firefighter. Suffering burns to over 90 percent of his body, the victim died in the hospital nearly two months later. There was no occupant inside the house [8]

Only two of the 13 fatalities presented involved being caught in a structural collapse. One was the Massachusetts firefighter mentioned earlier and the second is a volunteer New York firefighter who was found after falling through a hole in the first floor of a residential structure.

Two victims are part of the only multi-fatality incident to have occurred during this time period.

Fire Buildings and Fire Location

Residential structures account for 10 of the structures where the victims died. Two others occurred in commercial structures. One, the fatality in Kentucky, is not included here as part of greater detail. Of the 10 killed in residential structures, eight died inside multi-family dwellings and two inside single-family dwellings. Differentiation between the two is based on narratives in the on-duty death notifications, investigation reports and news reports.

Single-Family Dwellings

  • Two-story; 6,000 square feet, built in 1998, non-sprinklered. Fire in basement garage
  • Two-story; dimensions, date and details unknown. Fire on first floor

Multi-Family Dwellings

  • Three-story garden-style apartment building; built in the 1950’s. Fire on ground floor
  • Three-decker Queen Anne-style apartment house; built in 1890. Fire in rear involving decks with extension into first and second floor
  • Three-story Victorian-converted apartment house; built in 1800’s. Fire on ground floor rear with extension into second floor
  • Three-story condominium complex; built in 1980, sprinklered but shut off for renovations. Trash chute fire with extension on first floor
  • Two-story mixed-use structure, apartment over store; built in 1877. Fire on first floor, rear. (two victims in this structure involved in searching)
  • 21-story high-rise apartment building; dimensions, date and details unknown. Fire on 19th
  • Five-story high-rise apartment building; dimensions, date and details unknown. Fire on second floor.

Two fatalities in the group occurred inside commercial structures.

  • Six-story high-rise officer building; built in 1992, not sprinklered throughout. Fire on sixth floor.
  • 7,400-square feet public assembly hall; built in 1945, non-sprinklered. Fire at roof-line in the Alpha/Bravo corner.

Part I Summary

As we see, when one searches on-duty death data, in the time period presented, the larger number of 20 fatalities reveals 10 who were doing a search for occupants outside of the fireground environment. What should be extremely troubling is that of those 10 two died during training. It is important that as we and our greater fire service organizations work towards reducing on-duty deaths that understand the specific details of each death and how they can skew the impressions and assumptions given through our yearly fatality reports. It is equally important to take note of declines in these numbers and in certain activity types so that we can begin to identify what caused the declines. As defined by the USFA, the fire service experienced only one fatality regarding search in 2010 and none in 2012. Even better, not one fatality during search occurred inside a vacant/abandoned building. Certain factors have caused this reduction and must be identified, but in the meantime, ask yourself if you can recall any ‘good news’ about this? Have you ever been told that nationally we had such a low number in this activity type? The constant hype of fear and fatalities on the fireground, thanks to irrational social media users, can lead one to assume wrongly that firefighters are dying in constant numbers while performing certain actions inside or on top of a fire building.

We need to move beyond the fear, beyond the social media discussions, past those who might be using impending doom to deliver their biased message, to look seriously at our fatalities, their details and what efforts are making a positive impact.

Part II will look at the fires and firefighters in this data group.


  1. Timothy R. White, Cedar Lake Fire Department, USFA August 5, 2011
  2. Michael F. Martin, PPL Susquehanna LLC, USFA November 27, 2011
  3. “Career Fire Fighter Dies While Conducting a Search in a Residential House Fire – Kansas” NIOSH F2010-13. Neighbor states possible elderly occupant or couple and a dog inside. TR71 advises Command.
  4. “Career Fire Fighter Dies and Another is Injured Following Structure Collapse at a Triple Decker Residential Fire – Massachusetts” NIOSH F2011-30
  5. “Line of Duty Deaths Investigation Report, 528 Magnolia Street, Sunday, January 26, 2014″ Toledo Fire Department, August 2015
  6. “Lucas County Coroner releases cause of death of firefighters” Nick Bade, Toledo News Now January 28, 2014.
  7. Arlie “Pooh” Hill III, Whitley City Fire Department, USFA October 27, 2013
  8. “Whitley City Fire Lt. Arlie “Pooh” Hill III dies at University of Cincinnati Medical Center” Casey Weldon, WCPO October 29, 2013

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

Published by Data Not Drama

Data Not Drama is writings that provide a point of critical thought about firefighter fatality data and education, line of duty deaths, and risk. The main focus is to encourage less risk aversion and better knowledge on the subject of firefighter fatalities in firefighters, fire departments, and fire service organizations.

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