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NIOSH Recommends Measures to Protect Firefighters from Death, Injury in Structural Collapses

NIOSH Update:

Contact: Fred Blosser (202) 260-8519
August 24, 1999

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) today recommended key steps for protecting firefighters from death or serious injury in the collapse of floors, walls, ceilings, and other structural parts of burning buildings.

Structural collapses during fires usually occur without direct warning, and often result in fatal or disabling injuries to firefighters. However, with tactical lanning, fire departments can anticipate such emergencies and save firefighters’ lives. Fire departments should ensure that risks for structural collapses are strategically assessed at fires, that good communications are maintained between crews inside and outside of burning buildings, and that emergency rescue preparations are in place.

The recommendations came in a new NIOSH Alert that is being disseminated widely to career and volunteer fire departments; fire chiefs, commissioners, and administrators; safety and health officials; unions and labor organizations; fire marshals; insurance companies; and others. The Alert is the first report by any federal agency to focus specifically on preventing firefighter deaths and injuries from structural collapses. The recommendations are based on results of several NIOSH investigations of line-of-duty fatalities, as well as input by outside fire safety specialists and organizations.

“Structural collapses can put a firefighter at deadly risk in a split second, whether in the form of a falling roof beam that inflicts instantaneously fatal injuries, or a sudden plunge through a weakened floor that, even if survived, isolates the firefighter from help as avenues of escape or rescue are rapidly cut off,” said NIOSH Director Linda Rosenstock, M.D., M.P.H. Our recommendations reflect sensible precautions for averting such dangers and protecting the men and women who perform extraordinary service for the public good every day.”

Structural collapses can be difficult to predict and often result in multiple fatalities. The case reports in the new NIOSH Alert involved firefighters who were fatally crushed, asphyxiated, or burned when they were caught under collapsing walls, were trapped behind partial roof collapses, or fell through damaged floors.

Of the 316 firefighters who died from 1989 to 1998 while fighting structure fires, 56 died in structural collapses. During the past 14 months, 13 firefighters died in eight such incidents.

According to the Alert, fire departments should ensure that:

  • Commanders on the scene conduct an initial assessment of risk from structural collapse, and follow with ongoing risk assessments to anticipate imminent, life-threatening situations that require rescue.
  • The commander maintains accountability for all fire personnel at the scene, so that individuals’ locations are known.
  • At least four firefighters with full protective equipment are on the scene before anyone enters the burning structure. Teams inside and outside should be in communication.
  • A specialized standby team is in position to rescue firefighters in the building if an emergency arises.
  • Firefighters entering the burning building are equipped for two-way communications with the command team.
  • Procedures are established – including use of dedicated channels for emergency radio transmissions – to prevent excessive radio traffic at a fire scene from disrupting or garbling emergency and rescue communications.
  • All firefighters are equipped with and use audible alarm devices, called personal alert safety system or PASS devices, when they operate in any hazardous area.
  • Structural materials and components in buildings are examined in pre-fire planning and inspections.
  • A prearranged signal, sound, or tone is transmitted immediately when an emergency evacuation is ordered.
  • Areas are zoned off around buildings having parapet walls that protrude above roof level, to protect firefighters from being crushed or struck by debris if a wall collapses.

NIOSH investigates every firefighter death in the U.S. under its Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. Results of these investigations help NIOSH and the fire fighting community to better define the magnitude and characteristics of work-related deaths and severe injuries among firefighters. The findings also help NIOSH and others, to develop recommendations for the prevention of these injuries and deaths, as in the Alert on structural collapses, and to implement and disseminate prevention efforts.

The text of “NIOSH Alert: Preventing Injuries and Deaths of Firefighters Due to Structural Collapse,” DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 99-146, is available on the NIOSH Web Site, Copies also will be available from the NIOSH toll-free information number, 1-800-35-NIOSH (1-800-356-4674). Further information on NIOSH research pertaining to firefighter safety and health and other areas of work-related injury and illness is also available from the toll-free number and from the NIOSH Web Site.