Excessive speed cited in Colo. wildfire LODDs

NIOSH says firefighters should receive essential training on the emergencies that they will respond to

By Jamie Thompson
FireRescue1 Senior Editor

OLNEY SPRINGS, Colo. — Excessive speed for reduced visibility/smoke conditions contributed to the deaths of a fire chief and a firefighter who drove their apparatus onto a bridge that had collapsed from fire damage, according to NIOSH.

A lack of coordination between responding agencies and departments and inadequate driver and multi-agency response training were also cited as factors behind the LODDs in the firefighter fatality report.

Photo courtesy of DenverPost.com John Schwartz, left, and Terry DeVore.
Photo courtesy of DenverPost.com John Schwartz, left, and Terry DeVore.

Firefighter John Schwartz Jr., 38, and Chief Terry Devore, 30, of the Olney Springs, Colo., Volunteer Fire Department, died when they failed to see the fire-damaged wooden bridge while driving through thick black smoke during a wildfire.

The vehicle, a 4-wheel drive pickup truck with a 400 gallon water tank with associated pump, hose and reel, plummeted into a dry creek bed and was found by other responding firefighters about 10 minutes later.

NIOSH investigators concluded that, to minimize the risk of similar occurrences, fire departments should ensure that firefighters receive essential training on the emergencies that they will respond to and how to respond safely.

Additionally, NIOSH said fire departments, municipalities, and authorities having jurisdiction should:

  • Establish pre-incident plans regarding traffic control for emergency service incidents and pre-incident agreements with public safety agencies, traffic management organizations, and private sector responders.
  • Train on utilizing the national incident management system to effectively respond to and manage multi-agency incidents.
  • Be aware of programs that provide assistance in obtaining alternative funding, such as grant funding, to replace or purchase firefighting equipment.
  • Investigators said neither of the victims had any driver training for a vehicle of that size and weight prior to the accident on April 15, 2008.
  • Speed directly affects the distance required to stop a vehicle, the report said, and a driver/operator should know the total stopping distance of the emergency vehicle/apparatus.
    "In this incident, the circumstances suggest the apparatus was being driven too fast for the limited visibility created by the fire and smoke conditions," the report said.

It also focused on the role of the command post, which was set up at the county sheriff's office in the rural community as the sheriff collected information about the wind-driven fire that was spreading rapidly.

The command office was overwhelmed due to the fact that they did not have enough phone lines to answer and distribute the volume of calls needed to manage the incident, according to investigators.

"In this incident, a wooden bridge on the main highway into the town that was threatened by fire had collapsed due to fire," the report said. "A highway patrol officer had reported the bridge's condition to the command post which was staffed by the local sheriff. Command was overwhelmed and understaffed with attempting to coordinate all the necessary tasks related to this incident."

There weren't any temporary traffic control or warning devices put into place to alert motorists that the bridge was out of service, the report said.

Investigators recommend states and municipalities in conjunction with fire departments, emergency medical responders, law enforcement, and private sector responders should develop pre-incident plans that include automatic response protocols that include traffic control.

"These municipalities and departments should inventory and map critical structures like wooden bridges that may be compromised by wildfire prior to an incident occurring," the report said.

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