“Killing Hundreds of Firefighters!”

 

The sky is falling

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A Twitter post of San Francisco firefighters on the roof of a burning apartment building had a photo of firefighters on the roof of the burning building.  The immediate thought was the immediate, typical and tired outrage usually presented when that visual image is shared.

“There is no need to be on the roof,”  “Vertical ventilation is too dangerous,”  “Why be on the roof of a building that is already vented?”  And “This is how we’re killing firefighters every year.”  That last one is a favorite for it shows a laziness toward knowing and understanding our fireground fatality data.

So, what does the data actually show?  We have to go back to 2011 to find a firefighter killed while performing vertical ventilation of a burning structure.  On 14 August 2011 a Dallas Fire-Rescue lieutenant was with another firefighter preparing to ventilate the roof of a burning apartment building when the decking material failed and lieutenant fell into the attic space [1].  Firefighters ended up having to cut joists to free the lieutenant and turn him over to EMS.  Despite their efforts, the victim was overcome (he was not wearing his SCBA facepiece) and died of his injuries at the hospital [2].

Latest listings of firefighter on-duty deaths, Activity Type" Ventilation. (USFA)

Latest listings of firefighter on-duty deaths, Activity Type” Ventilation. (USFA)

Since then, the United States Fire Administration only lists two other firefighter fatalities under the activity type ‘Ventilation.’  One is a Philadelphia captain who while walking on the roof of an adjoining building toward the fire building fell 20 feet through the roof of fire building [3].  The captain had his facepiece on as he was moving towards Side Alpha of the smoke obscured roof when he fell. A PAR later determined he was missing. He was freed from the structure approximately two hours later [4].

The other fatality involved a volunteer firefighter in New Jersey at the scene of a commercial structure fire.  On 28 February 2014 the victim suffered a heart attack while ventilating the roof of a burning restaurant and fell from the structure [5].

Some may say “what about the Denver firefighter from this year?” and they would be correct to include him. On 15 June the Engineer was checking for extension on the roof of an abandoned warehouse during a dumpster fire when he fell through a skylight [6].  Severely injured, he died in the hospital several days later.

Unfortunately the USFA does not list the Denver Engineer’s activity type as ‘Ventilation’ but rather ‘Driving/Riding Personal Vehicle.’  We called this to your attention earlier.

So, while we do have plenty of near-miss stories such as the captain in Fresno, the truth – and a truth we should be proud of – is that we are not killing hundreds or even dozens of firefighters every year by putting them on the roof.  We have to look at what measures over time have positively contributed to a low number of related fatalities while at the same time not allow ourselves to be guided by fear-mongering and assumptions about our on-duty deaths.

 

What do you think has had an impact in this low number of firefighter fatalities?

 

References
1. Todd Wesley Krodle, Dallas Fire Department
2. “Career Lieutenant Dies After Being Trapped in the Attic After Falling Through a Roof While Conducting Ventilation – Texas” F2011-20 NIOSH, 27 June 2012
3. Michael Robert Goodwin, Sr. Philadelphia Fire Department
4. “Career Captain Dies Conducting Roof Operations at a Commercial Structure Fire – Pennsylvania” F2013-07 NIOSH, 16 July 2014
5. Gregory “Barney” D. Barnas, Wallington Fire Department

 

Related
“Fresno Fire Captain Shows Remarkable Recovery” FireRescue Magazine/FirefighterNation.com 13 July 2015
“Report: Fresno Roof Failure and Firefighter Injury” FireRescue Magazine/FirefighterNation.com 3 April 2015

 

Photo courtesy of Chris Casale/Hit The Plug Photography, used with permission. See more here.

 

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BillCareyBioPicBill Carey is the online public safety news and blog manager with PennWell Public Safety, or more specifically FireRescue Magazine/FirefighterNation.com, JEMS.com, and FireEMSBlogs.com. Bill started in the fire service, as a third generation firefighter in 1986, on the eastern shore of Maryland and then continued after moving to Prince George’s County. He served as a volunteer sergeant and lieutenant at Hyattsville. Bill’s writing has been on Firehouse.com, Fire Engineering, FireRescue Magazine, FirefighterNation.com, the Jones and Bartlett 2010 edition of “Fire Officer: Principles and Practice”, The Secret List and Tinhelmet.com. His recent writing on firefighter behavioral health was nominated for a 2014 Neal Award for Best Subject-Related Series.

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19 Comments

  • Bryan Lynch says:

    I share the frustration of many in regard to roof operations and the propensity for some to embellish the LODD statistics. I’ve found people who claim vertical ventilation is dangerous and embellish the statistics typically are either uneducated about vertical ventilation or have little to no experience vertically ventilating.

    Since 1994 five firefighters have died while performing vertical ventilation. Four of the five weren’t wearing any airway protection. Only two of the departments regularly perform vertical ventilation. PPE and experience played major roles in the death of these firefighters. I wish more people would educate themselves instead of lambasting vertical ventilation or spewing statistics that are either fabricated or misleading. Here are the five firefighters who have died since 1994 performing vertical ventilation.

    8/3/1994 John Nutter Louisville FD. Killed when the roof collapsed under him while performing ventilation at a fire in a storage facility.

    8/29/1998 Justin Melton Marks VFD MS. Melton was attempting to ventilate the roof of the store when the roof collapsed.

    9/24/2000 Kevin Harshbarger Scenic Loop VFD TX. Harshbarger and another firefighter went to the roof of the structure to cut a hole. As the hole was being cut, Harshbarger fell through the roof into the main body of fire.

    9/14/2002 Mike Kruse Muscatine FD IA. Died after falling through a roof following roof ventilation operations at a house fire.

    8/14/2001 Todd Krodle Dallas FD TX. Died after falling through a roof and being trapped in an attic.

  • Rob Duffy says:

    It seems to me that the depts that don’t have the manpower or the training tend to be quite adamant about not doing vertical ventilation and some of the larger dept that don’t do it typically don’t have very many peaked roofs anyways. I have been a career firefighter for 20 years and have watched all the hoopla from the abc agency’s and thier scientific tests which don’t really simulate actual real life weather,contents,structure,etc … Some good information can be gathered from these tests but they are the all that ends all. I have been on both sides, on the tip heading towards the fire, on the RS DOING searches and on the truck venting. I have experienced the lift of conditions that have sped up extinguishment, I have experienced the visibility increase to enable a faster rescue and I have seen bldg a saved with the proper sized and placed vent hole. With the proper training, common sence and the right equipment vertical ventilation is a game change not to mention it is one of the assignments of any real truck company.

  • Ric Jorge says:

    If ignorance of the law is not an excuse, why would ignorance of your job be any different?
    I think we tolerate the ignorant a little too much at times. I think the “educated inexperienced” firefighter/officer is just as dangerous as the ignorant one.
    Firefighting is an inherently dangerous, violent, dirty job. the continuing education required to be a “good” fireman is never given enough credit because we associate education in terms of “degrees”, but our educational success are vetted by experience and training. Sadly you can’t train some people on developing a set of balls.
    Vertical ventilation is part of the job, searching “vacant” buildings is part of the job, advancing the deuce .5 is part of the job, lack of sleep is part of the job, tragedy is part of the job, being scared is part of the job, being a coward is not.

    Great article Bill, keep up the great work.

  • Manuel Navarro says:

    Recent NIST and UL studies have confirmed what we are seeing in a number of recent fires. It also confirms what I have experienced in over 4 decades of firefighting. Ventilation must be coordinated with proper placement of fire attach lines and or rescue operations. NIST/UL studies demonstrate that when we ventilate, we will pull pressurized smoke/hydro carbons to that negative area. What will also occur is air being pulled into the building and thus increasing the fire. Quite simple really, ventilation can if not coordinated with cooling the fire make conditions worse.

    What also needs to be addressed is that staffing plays a significant role in coordination of ventilation and fire attack. Well staffed and deployed fire companies can complete tasks that other minimum staffed departments cannot. Do not expect your department to perform a top down ventilation with only two members, your are flirting with disaster.

    Follow the studies, review your procedures and expectations. Members need to understand the changes in building construction, fire load and the physics that contribute to flow path and neutral plane (read the smoke) Without the above it is a matter of time someone will be injured or killed.

  • Jake says:

    How about we take a look at the statistics of the worthiness and effectiveness of vertical ventilation on peaked, or pitched, roof structures. Is it worth putting members and resources on the roof of a peaked roof building to gain the little bit of vertical ventilation that will actually be achieved? Or would those members and resources be better applied to rapid hose line placement hitting the seat of the fire and opening walls and ceilings to accomplish this eliminating the threat all together. I think the statistics you used don’t necessarily show the lack of incidents of members being killed conducting roof ventilation, but rather they show the advancements and proper use of our PPE. Instead I think the empirical data of injuries would be a better fit for proving your point over fatalities. I am currently a Truckie in Brooklyn, NY and ride the roof regularly. We do not operate on peaked roofs. We will cut later in the operation from a tower ladder bucket in very specific circumstances, but the initial operations have proven to be more effective by placing the roof members on the inside pulling ceilings to expose fire and immediately knock it down with the line.

    • Bill Carey says:

      Those are very good points Jake. The injury data would be a more effective tool, unfortunately it is not collected as well as fatality data.

  • john mclaughlin says:

    Ric Jorge is my new hero, couldnt be put better.

  • Bryan Lynch says:

    Jake,
    Data collection on injuries is scarce at best. There are numerous roadblocks hindering the process. Data collection from department to department varies let alone state to state. I agree it would be beneficial but it is nearly an impossible task unless every FD opens their books. 

    You posted, “Is it worth putting members and resources on the roof of a peaked roof building to gain the little bit of vertical ventilation that will actually be achieved?” All evidence to the contrary. Vertical ventilation in peaked roofs creates tenability and survivability for the civilians and visibility for firefighters. I’ve experienced it firsthand being interior when the peaked roof is cut and feeling how dramatically conditions change for the better and having cut numerous peaked roofs and having the interior teams say conditions cleared right up. I agree with your point in the sense that more people inside searching and opening up can be effective but most departments don’t have 6 man trucks and 5 man engines. We have to maximize our resources. In situations where visibility and tenability is limited, taking the 2-3 minutes to vertically ventilate can expedite the search and hose line advancement. Essentially we take time to make time. I’ve had numerous conversations with FDNY guys about vertical ventilation on peaked roofs and they start and stop with saying “we don’t ventilate peaked roofs.” I don’t fight high rise fires. I don’t have many in my city. I really can’t offer an experienced based opinion on how to attack a fire in a high rise building so I don’t. I stay in my lane. What I can offer an experienced opinion on is fighting fires in apartment complexes and single family dwellings with peaked roofs. I do know that vertical ventilation is an essential tool and when utilized can be a game changer for interior conditions. It creates tenability and survivability and helps expedite search and hose line operations.

  • Jeff Deetz says:

    Vertical ventilation of peaked roofs is a simple, straight forward tactic that requires 2-3 firefighters 3-4 minutes to complete and then reassigned to the interior. The conditions improve dramatically and with the application of water, everything gets better, temps, visibility. Do we need it every fire, no, but when appropriate nothing can compare. Look at the UL fires and see the dramatic decrease in temps when there small vertical vent hole was opened with the application of water. I agree with Bryan, I don’t fire fires in highrise buildings so would never tell a Urban guy how to do it, I have spent 34 years working in suburbia dealing with homes and garden apts, vertical venting works and is not dangerous when you train on it and refine it on the fireground.

  • David says:

    Amen Bill. Ventilation is still a valuable tool on the fireground. Skill and training is required. Never say never in the fire service, as in never put firefighters on the roof, it will bite you in the end

  • charles bailey says:

    I think this discourse misses the real, or what should be the real, focus of questioning vertical ventilation, or for that matter any other fireground hazard. The real questions would be:
    What does a valid risk assessment look like?
    What does the fireground situation look like where the benefit of roof ventilation supports the exposure to the high risk that being on the roof represents?

    The size-up, the risk assessment, are designed to answer the question, “Is what I am about to do e.g., put a hole in the roof, worth the possible outcome e.g., death or severe injury?” Arguably you can ask how likely, or how probable is a fall through the roof? That would be a good point. What I know is that every day that goes by sees more and more engineered roof assemblies that tend to not do so well when exposed to fire. What I know that you are seeing these things (engineered assemblies) pop up in urban core revitalizations, in suburban in-fills, in renovations everywhere. What I know is that while the available data says not many firefighters are falling through the roof, the probability of that happening is increasing daily.

    You have to talk about it this way because even if very few people fall through roof the severity is high. Standard risk constructs set up risk as the product of frequency and severity such that even if the frequency of falling through is relatively low the severity is relatively high and thusly the risk is relatively high.

    It is safe to say that the number one incident priority for any fire/rescue type event is life safety. It is also safe to say that firefighters should, or better must, accept high levels of risk to save lives. It is also safe to say that sometimes people die, both firefighters and civilians.

    I do not think that anyone worth listening to is going to make the argument that is is ok to trade firefighters lives for stuff. Yes, we are sworn to protect life and property but I do not think that anyone worth listening to is going to make the argument that is is ok to trade firefighters lives for stuff.

    The question again, is the benefit of the opening the roof so big that it is worth the chance of killing someone?
    Another question is can I get the same benefit, the creation of an exhaust for fire gases, using other methods. Well with a two-story house opening second story windows accomplishes the same thing, exhaust high, inlet low. Putting water on the fire first does the same thing, cools gases, stops pyrolysis, reduces heat release rates, makes things better for the firefighters and the occupants etc… but with less risk that being on a roof.

    Assuming that the aim of vertical ventilation(roof based) is to create an exhaust for fire by products I am hard pressed to believe that even a well staffed department can arrive on the scene and execute the vertical ventilation maneuver in a way that justifies that risk.

  • Jeff Deetz says:

    Charles, I do not know where even to start, you are so off base, more firefighters are killed be driving accidents each year than roof ops, the same can be said about directing traffic at mvc’s, should we stop these activities, of course not. What does severity of a action matter, dead is dead, whether you are run over at a non-injury mva, shot responding to a BLS medical call, or backed over by apparatus or fall off or through a roof.
    If you are not prepared through training, then I agree, STAY OFF THE ROOF!! But for professionals that do it all the time, it is a valuable tool for the fireground.

  • Jeff Deetz says:

    One more point Charles, your comment:
    “Assuming that the aim of vertical ventilation(roof based) is to create an exhaust for fire by products I am hard pressed to believe that even a well staffed department can arrive on the scene and execute the vertical ventilation maneuver in a way that justifies that risk”
    My department and hundreds of others routinely “execute the vertical ventilation” everyday, in a timely, efficient and safe manner!!!!

  • Bryan Lynch says:

    Charles,

    Since you brought up the risk vs reward, “What does the fireground situation look like where the benefit of roof ventilation supports the exposure to the high risk that being on the roof represents?” Statistically you’re statement is unsupported. Since 1994, 5 FF’s have died falling through roofs in an attempt to vertically ventilate (4 of 5 weren’t wearing airway protection). We respond to around 450,000 structure fires annually and depending on who you ask we vertically ventilate around 12-15% of all structure fires. For the sake of the argument lets call it a conservative 10%. That means that between 1994-2013 we responded to 9 million working fires and vertically ventilated around 900,000. That means that every 180,000 fires we suffered a fatality. In that same time period 53 (conservative number) FF’s have died because of flashover and other horizontal induced fire behavior. Again, 9 million fires between 1994-2013 and 53 deaths. That’s a fatality every 169,000 fires. If you want to talk about risk v reward talk about the totality of circumstances. Talk about the risk to interior firefighters from building collapse, rapid fire event and disorientation due to low visibility. Vertical ventilation can help all those. If the roof is compromised the vent team can discover that before it collapses. If conditions are untenable VV can raise the neutral plane and create tenability and survivability. It assists firefighters by providing visibility that will expedite our hose and search operations.
    There is a simple way to operate on any roof and especially lightweight roofs. Sound the decking and the trusses, walk the trusses, walk at right angles and trade distance for time.
    You posted, “Another question is can I get the same benefit, the creation of an exhaust for fire gases, using other methods. Well with a two-story house opening second story windows accomplishes the same thing, exhaust high, inlet low.” Charles, you absolutely do no get the same benefit by opening horizontal low pressure (windows and doors) as you do with a vertical low pressure (hole in the roof). UL/NIST found that given equal size exhaust openings (4×8 window and 4×8 vertical ventilation hole) the vertical ventilation 4×8 will exhaust more than the horizontal opening. Simply breaking windows will not give you the same result as a vertical ventilation hole will.
    Risk v reward is a great tool if we understand the true risk. “You can’t manage risk from a position of fear.”

  • Bryan Lynch says:

    Jeff Deetz,

    Good comments.

  • charles bailey says:

    Mr Deetz and Mr. Lynch,

    Pardon me for not assuming the same first name familiarity that you assumed with me. However, despite that I think this topic is sufficiently important to try again to make my point.

    Based on the comments that you two left I think there are three basic questions or problems that you raised with my initial comment.

    ITEM 1
    “Charles, I do not know where even to start, you are so off base, more firefighters are killed be driving accidents each year than roof ops, the same can be said about directing traffic at mvc’s, should we stop these activities, of course not. What does severity of a (sic) action matter, dead is dead, whether you are run over at a non-injury mva, shot responding to a BLS medical call, or backed over by apparatus or fall off or through a roof.”
    ——
    The fact that more firefighters are killed driving by driving accidents does not have anything to do with the risk of operations on roofs. They are two different hazards and the risks are the same. I think I understand your point. As I read your comment and some of the others, I think what you want is a way to compare different risks in an apples to apples kind of way. Lucky for us there is a way to do that. Click this link for more: http://understandinguncertainty.org/micromorts

    My discussion, however, was not that deep. I did not want to do the math of comparing the risks of driving to the risks of working on the roof. What I wanted to do was problematize the notion that because there were not large recorded numbers of people dying during roof operations, that somehow there was little risk involved. My point is that when the severity of an adverse outcome e.g., severe burn injury, is high, then the “risk” is likely also high because of how severity and frequency are related mathematically.

    ITEM 2
    Talk about the risk to interior firefighters from building collapse, rapid fire event and disorientation due to low visibility. Vertical ventilation can help all those. If the roof is compromised the vent team can discover that before it collapses. If conditions are untenable VV can raise the neutral plane and create tenability and survivability. It assists firefighters by providing visibility that will expedite our hose and search operations.
    There is a simple way to operate on any roof and especially lightweight roofs. Sound the decking and the trusses, walk the trusses, walk at right angles and trade distance for time.
    —–
    This is an interesting point. You are right when you assert that the firefighter faces myriad risks when operating inside or on a structure that is on fire. I agree that vertical ventilation can help to mitigate some of those risk by improving interior conditions, sometimes. That however, was not my question. My question was and remains, “Is the likely benefit of vertical ventilation worth the associated risks?” Interestingly, as opposed as I am philosophically to vertical ventilation as a “default” mode of action I have in the past and will continue to order vertical ventilation, but only when the following conditions are met:

    ONE: The benefits of the vertical ventilation outweigh the risks
    TWO: When that determination is made via deliberate, defendable thought processes.

    ITEM 3
    “Charles, you absolutely do no get the same benefit by opening horizontal low pressure (windows and doors) as you do with a vertical low pressure (hole in the roof). UL/NIST found that given equal size exhaust openings (4×8 window and 4×8 vertical ventilation hole) the vertical ventilation 4×8 will exhaust more than the horizontal opening. Simply breaking windows will not give you the same result as a vertical ventilation hole will.”

    I really chuckle a quiet chortle whenever I see the UL/NIST research used. This research while wonderful in its own right, has taken on this amazing character of being able to justify just about anything. But that research has little bearing on this question. The question is not, “…does the hole at the roof peak create a more efficient flow path?” the question is “…can a series of smaller window openings create an exhaust, that while perhaps less efficient than a roof hole, are able to create a substantially similar outcome, albeit with less risk?”

    Also one should remember that creating that more efficient exhaust also increases risk to interior firefighters by increasing the likelihood of their exposure to rapid fire development, especially if the actions are not coordinated.

    At the end of the day no one can make these sorts of determinations out of context. We talk about them out of context in the hopes of developing a rational framework for making rational decisions. What is the “right thing” depends so much on the conditions present. The only thing that my question asks, and that I think remains unanswered is, “Is what I am about to do e.g., put a hole in the roof, worth the possible outcome e.g., death or severe injury?”

    If you answer “yes” to that question all I am asking is that you don’t do it , “just because” or reflexively. I would like that you would think it through.

    As for this comment, “Charles, I do not know where even to start…” I can help. Start at the beginning, start with an operational philosophy that is rooted in logic first, science where available, experience as a last resort and a rigorous examination of the facts you face in the moment. Combine that with an obsession with failure, a willingness to change your tactical posture quickly when necessary and…start with shedding personal and organizational biases. Start with stopping, stopping the binary framing of questions.

    Start there and I think you will find that we are not too far apart on any of this.

  • Bryan Lynch says:

    Charles,

    Thanks again for the dialogue. I agree that we aren’t very far off on this particular issue. Our department, SOG’s and experience dictate our tactics so it’s natural that we do and see things slightly different.

    “Is the likely benefit of vertical ventilation worth the associated risks?” I would ask the same thing about interior fire attack, searching ahead of the hose line, VEIS or any other interior operation. All of which are more likely to cause serious injury or death than vertical ventilation. Statistics don’t tell the entire story but they are a huge part of assessing needs and risk. To ignore them would be, as you implied, “just because” or reflexivity.

    Speaking of processes, I employ a top down ventilation assessment and philosophy at every fire. It entails a systemic evaluation of every floor of the building and the fire and smoke conditions on each floor. We either confirm the need for vertical ventilation or we eliminate the need for vertical ventilation almost immediately by the location of the fire (it must be on the top floor or in the attic/cockloft) and the fire conditions (the fire is producing a high amount of energy (taking away tenable and survivable space by lateral heat and smoke travel). A top floor fire with rapid lateral fire and smoke spread indicates vertical ventilation. It is the most efficient form of ventilation and will produce the most positive result (creates tenable and survivable space for victims and visibility for firefighters). If the fire isn’t on the top floor or we don’t have fire conditions representative of a high energy fire than horizontal ventilation is easily employed and will almost always have the desired effect. My process is an analytical and systematic approach to provide the greatest good for the people inside that building. This process is deliberate and certainly defendable.

    While UL/NIST has some limitations the data it has provided is invaluable. The research is objective and without bias. The bias is injected by the hoards of firefighters who piecemeal the data to fit their own narrative or promote an agenda. ULNIST has no preference on strategy and tactics. They simply provide logical and factual information based on cause and effect. One must be objective when evaluating the information and apply it to our experience. When we use it in the way it was intended, applied to our experience, the information becomes relevant. When assessing risk the first variable should be the citizens inside without the benefit of respiratory protection and PPE. I would never make a decision based solely on what ULNIST says just like I would never make a decision based on what FDNY or any other FD in the country does.

    My operational philosophy is deeply rooted in logic, science and common sense. My goal, no matter what my assignment is, is to provide the most positive outcome to whatever situation I’m faced. I would ask that you too evaluate things objectively and understand that there are significant differences in firefighting outside of your own organization.

    Again, thanks for the dialogue. Best of luck to you!

    Bryan Lynch

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