FIREFIGHTER LINE OF DUTY DEATHS WITH RADIO INVOLVEMENT

By Peter Szerlag - March 1999

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UPDATE - 22January2000 - added many new incidents (#42 to #55) - 5 Feb 2000 - fixed couple of small items

UPDATE - 7/2/99 - www.firehouse.com - Off Site News - Australian coroner rules that a ?defective radio system contributed to the death of a firefighter at a wildfire on New Year's Day 1 year ago

UPDATE - the US Fire Admin has released a new report on the subject of fireground radio usage - 7/2/99

UPDATE - June 7, 1999 - added online reports to incidents #4 and #15. August 10, 1999 - added #37, 38, 39.

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This page will be a repository of info related to the line-of-duty deaths of firefighters where radio usage played a possible role. Hopefully, any info gathered here can be used to improve the radio systems used by public safety personnel.

Please keep in mind that I am trying to be as accurate as possible. Also - if anyone has any info to add, please drop me an Email or whatever. I COULD USE A LOT MORE INFO ON MANY OF THESE INCIDENTS.

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The following incidents had ?obvious/overt problems with the radio systems. It is my opinion that most FD radio systems in the USA are so bad that one could say that all firefighter deaths are partially caused by radio communications problems. Look at it this way - if your radios were 10 times better than they are now, would you be 10 times safer than you are now? 100 times safer? 1000 times safer?

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Index - Incidents listed by date -
3/87 - #27 - New York City - Schomberg Plaza
5/88 - #26 - Los Angeles CA
February 23, 1991 - #30 - Philadelphia
December 20, 1991 - #29 - Brackenridge PA
February 5, 1992 - #18 - Indianapolis
Sept 28, 1992 - #28 - Denver
June 5, 1994 - #31 - NYC
January ?3, 1995 - #5 - Seattle WA
February 14, 1995 - #8 - Pittsburgh PA
March 18, 1996 - #25 - Chesapeake VA
October ?22, 1996 - #15 - Malibu CA
October 24, 1997 - #4 - Washington DC
October 27, 1997 - #9 - Philadelphia PA
February 5, 1998 - #19 - Ohio
February 11, 1998 - #20 - Chicago IL
June 5, 1998 - #32 - New York City NY
August 28, 1998 - #37 - Marks MS
October 12, 1998 - #35 - ?St Louis MO
October 29, 1998 - #34 - Arkansas
November 6, 1998 - #38 - Thorofare/Goldsboro NC
?Nov 1998 - #6 - NYC
05 January 1999 - #43 - Kiln MS
January 19, 1999 - #39 - Syracuse NY
April 6, 1999 - #33 - Cranston KY
?May 1999 - #36 - Lake Worth TX
02 May 1999 - #44 - Hamby Bridge NC
?June 1999 - #41 - Lake County CA
4 June 1999 - #55 - NYC Queens
August ?30, 1999 - #40 - Santa Barbara CA
08 August 1999 - #46 - Midwest City OK
13 Sept 1999 - #45 - Auglaize Twp OH
16 Sept 1999 - #42 - McCulloch/Clarksville IN
30 Sept 1999 - #47 - River Falls SC
05 Oct 1999 - #50 - Texas City TX
16 Oct 1999 - #49 - Junction City/Redding CA
03 Nov 1999 - #48 - Tarentum PA
04 Nov 1999 - #52 - Scipio Twp/LaPorte IN
07 Nov 1999 - #51 - Elliott MS
13 Nov 1999 - #43A - Warminster PA
14 Nov 1999 - #52 - Pleck TX
03 Dec 1999 - #53 - Worcester MA
10 Dec 1999 - #52 - Fallston MD
15 Dec 1999 - #52 - Zwolle LA
18 Dec 1999 - #54 - Kansas City MO
18 Dec 1999 - #52 - Chesterfield Co/Bon Air VA
Feb 2000 - #57 - Houston TX
March 2000 - #58 - IL
8 March 2000 - #59 - Memphis TN

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Index - by state - by location/agency
Australia - 1998 - #11
Arkansas - State Forestry - 10/29/98 - #33
Lake County CA - #41
Los Angeles City CA - Interstate Bank Bld - #26
Los Angeles City CA - Chatsworth - #16
Los Angeles City CA - 1998 - #3
Los Angeles County - Malibu - #15
Los Angeles County CA - ?Arcadia - #17
Oakland CA - #13
Redding / Junction City CA - 10/16/99 - #49
San Francisco CA - #14
Santa Barbara CA - 8/30/99 - #40
Denver CO - 9/28/92 - #28
Storm King Mtn CO - #12
Washington, DC - #4
Chicago IL - 2/11/98 - #20
IL - March 2000 - #58
Clarksville / McCulloch IN - 9/16/99 - #42
Indianapolis IN - #18
LaPorte/Scipio Twp IN - 11/4/99 - #52
Cranston KY - 4/6/99 - #33
Zwolle LA - 12/15/99 - #52
Boston MA - #10
Stoughton MA - #7
Worcester MA - 12/3/99 - #53
Fallston MD - 12/10/99 - #52
Kansas City MO - #23
Kansas City MO - 12/18/99 - #54
?St Louis MO - 10/29/98 - #34
Elliott MS - 11/7/99 - #51
Kiln MS - 1/5/99 - #43
Marks MS - 8/29/98 - #37
Hamby Bridge NC - 5/21/99 - #44
Thorofare/Goldsboro NC - 11/6/98 - #38
Hackensack NJ - #1
New York City NY - Schomberg Plaza - 3/87 - #27
New York City NY - 6/5/94 - #31
New York City NY - 6/5/98 - #32
New York City NY - 6/4/99 - #55
New York City NY - 1999 - #6
Syracuse NY - 1/19/99 - #39
NY - 7/4/97 - #21
OH - 2/5/98 - #19
Auglaize Twp OH - 9/13/99 - #45
Midwest City OK - 8/8/99 - #46
Breckenridge PA - 12/20/91 - #29
Philadelphia PA - Meridian Hirise - 2/23/91 - #30
Philadelphia PA - #9
Pittsburgh PA - 2/14/95 - #8
Tarentum PA - 11/3/99 - #48
Warminster PA - 11/13/99 - #43A
River Falls SC - 9/30/99 - #47
Memphis TN - 8 March 2000 - #59
Houston TX - Feb 2000 - #57
Lake Worth TX - ?5/99 - #36
Pleck TX - 11/14/99 - #52
Texas City TX - 10/5/99 - #50
Chesapeake VA - #25
Chesterfield Co/Bon Air VA - 12/18/99 - #52
Lynchburg VA - #24
Seattle WA - #2
Seattle WA - #5 - 4 died
Wheeling WV - #22

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For incidents #20 and above - please click here  LODD File Page 2 

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#1 - Hackensack NJ - ?1988 - 5 firefighters died in a fire at a commercial occupancy - as I remember the details - the portable radio used by the firefighters had a switch that disabled the PL on the transmit. When this switch was ?accidentally hit, it prevented all other units from hearing the firefighters call for help. A police detective who was at police HQ heard the calls for help on his scanner (he was a fire buff). The police detective called the fire dispatcher and advised him of the situation.

#2 - Seattle WA - 1 firefighter died in a warehouse fire - after the firefighter was found it was determined that his portable radio ws tuned to the wrong channel.

#3 - Los Angeles CA - March 8, 1998 - Capt died in a commercial fire - the NIOSH report states that extreme radio congestion occurred and that problems occured with the radio system. (see NIOSH website at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/firehome.html or call 1-800-35-NOISH for copies of reports)

Let me pull a few items out of the NIOSH report -
A. At 0226 hours, two additional task forces were requested. They "were delayed due to equipment failure at the OCD" (OCD is the dispatch center). [exactly what equipment failure?]
B. "....the Captain of Engine 46 on the interior did not hear the order to withdraw." [he probably did not hear the order because he did not have a speaker/mike]
C. "A firefighter from Engine 33 .....activated his radio's emergency trigger......" [I believe that activating the emergency trigger causes the radio to immediately switch to Channel ?6 and after that I dont know what happens - Channel ?6 is kept clear of radio traffic so that these emergency signals can be received]
D. "At 0254 hours, Engine 15 radioed the IC that they had found the Captain on Engine 57 (victim), but their message was not heard by the IC due to heavy radio traffic." [the message was probably drowned out by motors, sirens, shouts, and radio traffic]
E. "At 0257 hours, the Red Alert tone.....was generated by OCD." [I wonder how many messages were lost due to the Red Alert tone. This red alert tone is probably an outgrowth of the World Trade Center bombing. However, if you dont know what you are doing, then I would bet that sounding the Red Alert tone causes more problems than it fixes]
F. "Fire fighters should not work beyond the the sight or sound of the supervising officer unless equipped with a portable radio." [yes - a portable radio that works]
G. "Fire ground communications at the fire scene became ineffective at times because of electronic problems and excessive communications." [what electronic problems? - direct versus repeater? - weak repeaters? - simulcast artifact?. LA City has just about the most advanced radio system of any USA FD - they have 10 simulcast repeater sites linked by microwave - you might not know what that means - but to me it is pretty damn impressive]
H. "Throughout the course of a fire attack...." [the typos start during the conclusion phase of the NIOSH report]
I. "problems with the communication equipment" [tell me more!]
J. "fire departments should implement a backup communications plan" [it would be nice if the primary radio plan got written first]

Sorry if I come across too harsh here - I do not mean to - I just see the need for massive improvement and no one is making them. On a related note - the US Fire Administration just released a report saying that USA fire death rates are 2nd highest in the industrialized world. This USFA report also says that the USA fire services probably need more technically trained leaders like they have in Europe. Can I suggest that some radio engineers get hired at USFA, NFPA, IAFC, IAFF, and the various State Fire Marshall offices?

#4 - Washington DC - Sgt Carter died in a grocery store fire - detailed report available at http://www.dcfd.com/JC_index.htm - many radio problems - see Channel 4 transcript at 0644 - dispatcher probably accidently covered up initial call for help - "doubling" rears its ugly head again - (apparently none of the "experts" who wrote the fire reconstruction report know how radios work) - October 1997 incident

#5 - Seattle WA - 4 firefighters died in a commercial occupancy - IC was unaware that fire was in basement below firefighters - NFPA report says "insufficient progress reports on fireground channel"

#6 - New York City - 1999 - 3 firefighters died in highrise fire - caught in a hallway full of fire - unknown what role radio played although I believe that NYFD faces major congestion problems on their primary fireground radio channel of 153.83. UPDATE - Jan 2000 - this fire is now on the NIOSH website. The firefighters were in the hallway when the apartment window broke. High winds blew a large volume of fire into the hallway. I am guessing that things would have gone better if the radios were better. If doubling was elimanated, firefighters would be much more successful in sending and receiving radio messages. This would allow them to spend less time worrying about radio etiquette; it would allow them to spend more time thinking about tactics and safety.

 #7 - Stoughton MA - 1 firefighter died in a ?boarding house fire - after the fire, improvements were made to the FD radio system. (moved from 46.14 to 453.025R)

 #8 - Pittsburgh - February 14, 1995 - 3 firefighters died in a house fire - reportedly they were radio equipped but no radio message was ever received from them. / 3/1/99 - I just read the US Fire Administration report on this incident. It contains several intersting items : two of the victims had portable radios - the radios were found in their turnout coat pockets - there is possibly a transcript of all the radio messages at this incident but there are only about 5 fireground tactical messages listed - "there was no indication that the victims had attempted to use them (the portable radios) to call for assistance" - "It was not determined if the radios were set on the proper channel for the incident" - (Did anyone check?) - there is no mention of speaker mikes - there is no mention of what the proper radio channels were or whether they were repeaterized - after incident actions included the development of a trigger word to indicate emergency conditions (?MAYDAY) and the positions of the fireground channels on the portable radios were changed - also - EMS units were instructed to switch to the fireground channel during future incidents - no mention is made of the reliability of the backbone radio system or the topography of the scene relative to any nearby radio receiver sites.

Update - I have received info that Pittsburgh has two repeaterized radio channels that work pretty good. I will check the FCC database on this. I believe that Pittsburgh has a combined public safety radio system at 453MHz with one or two additional shared tactical channels available to police, fire, or EMS units. I think that the police only have 4 channels to carry all of their primary radio traffic so they probably use these spare tactical channels alot. I sorta get the impression that Pittsburgh FD does not use radios very much on the fireground.

Additional Info - April 9, 1999 - The Pittsburgh FD moved their two radio channels to the first and last slots on their channel selector knobs following the fire that killed the 3 firefighters. Per the FCC data base, three repeater sites serve the 4 PD channels and the 2 FD channels - 1 repeater site serves the TAC channel and the Admin channel. Unknown how many repeaters serve the EMS channels (462.95 and 462.975) - several suburbs are also licensed on these channels.

 #9 - Philadelphia - October 27, 1997 -- 2 firefighters die in a house fire - they were in radio contact with a pump operator in front of the building but apparently no distress call was heard. (see NIOSH website)

 # 10 - Boston MA - ?1995 - Lt Minnehan died in a warehouse fire - he was heard calling for help via his portable radio but he could not be located.

 #11 - Australia - 1998 - ?4 firefighters died - tanker overrun by brush fire - ?troubles with new trunked radio system - one item of interest is at www.geocities.com/vienna/opera/2115/austbad.html - here a coroner said that a fire that killed 1 firefighter on ?Dec ?25, ?1997 was partly caused by a bad radio system

 #12 - Storm King Mtn in Colorado - see other file on this webpage

 #13 - Oakland 1991 - conflagration kills 25 (including 1 police officer and 1 fire officer) - Oakland FD only had 2 useable radio channels to handle this fire

 #14 - San Francisco - ?1995 - ?3 firefighters dead in house fire - unknown radio involvement

 #15 - Malibu - October 1996 - burnover of ?2 firefighters in brush fire - I think that LA Co FD has been chronically short of radio channels for about 30 years - even though on "Emergency!" (the TV show) they never had fire radio problems, in real life I think that things were pretty bad on the radios. A detailed report is online at www.wildfiremagazine.com - under Urban Interface (go down left side to Favorites). There was a stuck mike during burnover plus major radio problems.

 #16 - Chatsworth - burnover of E?96 - 4 ffs burnt - unknown on radios - ?1994

 #17 - Los Angeles Co - ?2 hand crew members killed in burnover - ?1995 - ?interference from Mexico on radios?

 #18 - Indianapolis IN - ?2 ff killed at downtown ?hotel fire - could not activate emergency button on new trunked walkie talkie with gloves on

 #19 - 2/5/98 - 2 Ohio ffs dead - house fire - NIOSH report says that tactical channels needed - yet HTs seemed to work OK per report.

For Incidents #20 and above - please click here

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I will keep plugging away at this.

Anyone with further information about these incidents is strongly encouraged to drop me a note. (No one has sent me any mail or info as of 9/1/99)(Nothing received as of January 2000)

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