NIOSH: Lack of above fire training contributed to firefighter death

Investigators say if a staffed hoseline had been present, level of risk would have been significantly lowered


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is recommending increased staffing and more streamlined accountability management after a firefighter died after being caught in a rapid fire progression.

Lutherville, Md. Volunteer Fire Company Firefighter Mark Falkenhan and another firefighter were conducting a search on the third floor of a building with the seat of the fire on the first floor and spreading to the second floor.

A rapid fire buildup on the second floor caused smoke to travel up the common stairwell igniting the third-floor and trapping Firefighter Falkenhan. The other firefighter with Firefighter Falkenhan had gotten separated and jumped out of a bedroom window to escape the fire.

Despite multiple Mayday calls, crews were unable to reach him before his facepiece melted from the extreme heat.

When rescuers found Firefighter Falkenhan, their attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.

Above fire training
Investigators say firefighters should be fully prepared to understand the volatilities involved in conducting searches above an existing fire.

Compounded with extreme heat, rising smoke and the possibility of quick progression, firefighting above the fire requires a different skillset.

For Firefighter Falkenhan, he had to deal with a quick-spreading fire that resulted in a sudden and intense flashover.

Had there been a staffed hoseline, there could have been protection for search crews to keep flames controlled and possibly get to Firefighter Falkenhan before his facepiece melted.

"Firefighting and search acitivites commenced without first having a backup hoseline in place and operational," the report said.

Accountability and Command
Not having a defined command post and transfer of command as well as unclear accountability were factors in the death of Firefighter Falkenhan, according to NIOSH investigators.

When an officer arrived at the fire he was faced with having to initiate a civilian rescue; when another battalion arrived, command was not officially transferred for another 20 minutes.

In those 20 minutes, the new arriving officer could have re-assessed the situation while firefighters were involved in the fire. By passing on command, the original officer can avoid being overwhelmed.

"… Incident commanders become overloaded with information. With all the various tasks being performed … it is very difficult to address issues dealing with situation evaluation, personnel accountability, firefighter and responder safety. …"

Investigators are encouraging departments to consider having an aide or staff assistant for battalion chiefs who can facilitate and manage information and communication.

Personnel accountability was extremely important in this situation, especially in terms in response to Mayday response.

Firefighter Falkenhan had sounded several Mayday calls and it was difficult for crews to reach him until he had already collapsed and his facepiece melted.

Those in command should maintain accountability as firefighters in a structure fire complete their assigned tasks. A chief's aid should be able to be able to hold each firefighter accountable to their task and progress.

"In the event of an emergency or Mayday, the personnel accountability system must be able to provide a rapid accounting of all responders at the incident," the report said.

Although a clearer accountability and communication system may not have helped crews reach Firefighter Falkenhan in time, it may have helped the involved firefighters understand the quick progression of the fire.

NIOSH recommends firefighters keep in constant contact with commanders so that the progression of a fire and fire attack can be tracked.

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