Ineffective awareness, training, PPE and personnel accountability contributed to the death of a Texas volunteer firefighter during a wildland blaze, according to investigators cited in a recent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report.
Firefighter Elias Jaquez, 49, suffered fatal third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body when his fire truck became stuck in sand in Moore County, Texas, April 9, 2011. Three other firefighters with him were injured.
The four firefighters abandoned their truck and walked to try to escape the fire but became separated due to poor visibility. Firefighter Jaquez was later found severely burned and lying in a "dozer" road. He was transported to a hospital but died 11 days later.
NIOSH recommended in its report released March 5 that the incident commander (IC) conduct risk assessment in terms of savable lives, savable property and firefighter safety continuously. When the fire jumped the natural fire break, it's unclear whether the IC re-evaluated the situation and revised the plan of attack.
The report also called for wildland firefighters to be trained to meet the requirements of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group or NFPA 1051.
"Rural and volunteer fire fighters increasingly manage and provide fire-fighting operations for wildland fires." the report said. "... few fire fighters interviewed during this incident reported having participated in any formalized wildland fire-fighting training."
Situational awareness should be a part of fire fighting as well, the NIOSH report stipulated, particularly to enhance the Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes and Safety zones (LCES) system.
"Situational awareness is a combination of attitudes, previously learned knowledge, and new information gained from the incident scene and environment that enables the Incident Commander, tactical level managers, and company officers to gather the information they need to make effective decisions that will keep their fire fighters and resources out of harm's way, reducing the likelihood of adverse or detrimental effects," the report said.
Wearing the proper PPE and using fire shelters appropriately are essential, the report added. Firefighter Jaquez was found with his boots behind him in the road, but he was seen exiting the apparatus with his turnout coat in his arms. It was never found.
"Though used as a last resort, fire shelters greatly enhance the chances of survivability in the event of being overrun by a wildland fire," the report said.
The firefighters involved in the incident left the fire truck because it became stuck in the sand. So NIOSH recommended training apparatus drivers in conditions where they might be expected to operate, including extreme weather and off-roading.
Finally, the NIOSH report emphasized the importance of personnel accountability and effective standard operating procedures for communication, especially in incidents that might lead to separation of firefighters. These must be addressed at all levels, the report urged, from hardware tracking systems to tactical worksheets, and it must be used at every fire, from single-structure blazes to brush fires requiring crews to spread out over large areas.