On-Duty Deaths Under Search, 2011 – 2016

Not as bad as what you’re led to believe

By Bill Carey

Originally published 10 June 2017.

Searching a burning structure has typically been considered one of the most dangerous tasks, possibly second to vertical ventilation, among many in the fire service.  Depending upon a department’s composition, operations, and workload the average firefighter performing a search is doing so away from or without the benefit of a charged hoseline.  Depending on that same composition he or she might be found doing a search ahead of the nozzle team or on the floor above the fire floor.  As with most everything regarding interior firefighting the outcome of the investment put into a search is impacted by training, assignments, staffing, size-up and a certain degree of intestinal fortitude.

Conversations, writings, and presentations about the dangers while searching for life run the gamut of emotions and beliefs.  Managing risk is the common theme.  Some readers have written to me about their chiefs fearing their firefighters doing vent, enter, search.  Others express a belief that a search should only be done if there is a charged hoseline in the same area.  Truly we have suffered losses while firefighters searched for occupants, but what does our fatality data over the years tell us about death during search?  In a review of the past six years, from 2011 to 2016, a total of 546 firefighters died on-duty deaths as determined by the United States Fire Administration.  25 of those deaths involved the activity ‘Search and Rescue’ and of those, 14 occurred inside a burning structure.  If slightly over half of these fatalities were inside a structure, then where did the other victims die and what were they doing?

Out of the 80 on-duty deaths in 2011, five firefighters died during a search.  Three were involved with a fire; one was during a water rescue; and another occurred during training.  In 2012 only one fatality is attributed to a search out of the total of 83 on-duty deaths for that year. This firefighter in this incident suffered a heart attack during SCBA training.

2013 saw the largest number of firefighter deaths in this time period with 107, but we need to remember that there were several multi-fatality incidents in this year. Of those 107, five firefighter fatalities are listed with search.  Three occurred in residential structures and one in a commercial structure.  The remaining one was a victim that suffered a heart attack while searching for a woods fire. The death involving a commercial structure was also one involving a rapid intervention team assigned to find a missing firefighter.

One might question what the activity type is for the firefighters killed in the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion. The USFA lists this as ‘Unknown’.

There was an increase in the number of fatalities during search in 2014, but a decrease in the number of those that specifically died inside a burning structure.  An FDNY lieutenant was killed while searching for occupants during a fire in a residential high-rise.  In another fatality, a firefighter died during a fire in his own house.

Three firefighters died while doing a search in 2015. Two of the three were killed when they fell into an elevator shaft during separate structure fires.  The third died during a water rescue attempt.  Five died in 2016 while performing a search.  Three were killed in a collapse during a residential structure fire. The fourth died in a SCUBA-related recovery operations and the fifth suffered a heart attack during training.

On-Duty Deaths, 2011 to 2016: 546

Deaths in the Activity Type ‘Search and Rescue’: 25 *

Deaths during Search inside Structure Fires: 14 **

Residential Structure Fires: 11 **

Commercial: 3

*  One incident in 2016 was a multi-fatality incident claiming the live of three firefighters

** In two residential structures one firefighter died in a fire in his own house; another died in a fire that was near his home.

Type of Structure

Single-Family/Private Dwelling: 3

Rowhouse: 3*

Apartment: 3

Residential High-Rise: 2

Commercial: 2

Commercial High-Rise: 1

* One incident in 2016 was a multi-fatality incident claiming the live of three firefighters

Collapse: 5

Fall: 2

Flashover/Fire Behavior: 6

Out of Air: 1

2011 – 2016

Cause of Death

Caught or Trapped: 7

Collapse: 1

Fall: 2

Out of Air: 1

Nature of Death

Asphyxiation: 5

Burns: 3

Crushed: 1

Trauma: 2

So how did those who were not at actual fires die?

11 firefighters in this period died having performed some type of activity relevant to Search and Rescue but not involving a structure fire. They are grouped in this manner:

Assisting Injured Person: 1

Searching for Woods Fire: 1

Structure Collapse, Not Related to Fire: 2

Struck by Train: 1

Training: 3

Water Rescue: 3


In 2011 a 50-year old Indiana volunteer firefighter suffered a heart attack during technical rescue training.  He died the next month. A 51-year old Pennsylvania firefighter suffered a heart attack during SCBA training with his industrial fire brigade in 2012.  A 47-year old firefighter trainee lost consciousness during search and rescue training at a fire academy in Michigan.  He passed away later, displaying heart attack symptoms.

Water Rescue

A Mississippi volunteer firefighter died in 2011 during water rescue attempt in cold weather.  The firefighter attempted to swim out to a boat where a person was holding onto an unconscious person in the water but began to go underwater.  He was removed from the water by a civilian and transported to a hospital where he later died due to drowning.

In 2015 a career captain in Oklahoma was part of a crew removing apartment occupants from a flooding condition.  The captain was walking through water when he fell into a drainage ditch and swept away.  He was later located approximately 230 feet downstream.

A volunteer captain died in 2016 during a water recovery operation in North Carolina.  The captain and another diver had entered the water to search for a missing man when they both experienced some type of emergency. The captain did not resurface and was later recovered and pronounced dead at the scene.

Structure Collapse, Not Related to Fire

A West Virginia volunteer firefighter was involved in the removal of an injured worker at the scene of a radio tower collapse in 2014. As the firefighters dragged the injured worker from the collapse site, a second radio tower fell and struck the victim, killing him.

A Missouri career lieutenant was killed while on the scene of a reported building collapse. The victim and his company were searching buildings on the campus of a local college when an exterior elevated walkway fell on top of him. Utilizing airbags and cribbing firefighters removed the lieutenant.  He was transported to a hospital where he later died.

Deaths During Search, Currently

As of this time, two firefighter on-duty deaths out of the total 47 are listed under ‘Search and Rescue’.  A 63-year old Michigan firefighter died of a heart attack during search and rescue training and a 31-year old Texas firefighter was killed while searching for possible occupants in a shopping center fire.


Between 2011 and 2016 the U.S. fire service recorded 546 on-duty deaths.  Out of that 546 14, or 2.5%, were firefighters who died while searching for life inside a burning structure.  Two of those involved a victim who was in a fire in his own house and a victim who came across a fire near his home.  While the actual number of firefighters killed while searching burning structures is low in this six-year period, that does not translate into believing that the risk of death is to be considered low.  It does however steer us away from misinterpretation of vague or larger numbers and redirects toward how our firefighters are specifically dying.  As we have seen cardiac events, especially during training, have killed nearly half of those related to search not involving a burning structure. As much as we promote preplanning to be aware of a structure before it is on fire, we need to promote physical and medical wellness to be sure our firefighters are ready for work.  Consider the year 2012 where only one firefighter died of a heart attack while doing SCBA training.  Despite his loss, we had a year where no firefighter died while doing a search for life inside a burning structure. Fear tells us it is dangerous, reality tells us it is possible, and our training and education tell us it can be successful.

Photograph courtesy of Lloyd Mitchell.

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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