The Risk of Being on the Road

By Dennis L. Rubin with Bruce H. Varner, Training Day Presenters

On March 13, 2001, two Norfolk, Virginia, firefighters were struck by a car while they were working at the scene of an automobile fire on Interstate 64. This is an account of the real-life “emotional roller coaster ride” that followed the accident.

My home telephone rang at the same time the shrill tone of the pager urged my attention. What was so important that both electronic devices had to be used to get the fire chief out of bed? I had no doubt that something big (a major incident of some type) was brewing. In the previous seven years, I could not recall having this one-two punch hit me in the middle of sleep hours. It was a little like being back on shift.

The dispatcher on the telephone was professional in tone and very much to the point. “Fire 1!” (the department’s radio designation for the chief). “Yes,” I responded to her voice. The dispatcher continued, “Two firefighters have been struck on Interstate 64 …”

The Chief’s Nightmare Begins

The pager message seemed to confirm what the voice over the telephone just told me. I tried not to believe either messenger and was hoping that this was just a dream and I would sleep through the situation.

Next, the digital words scrolling across the pager screen were confirming what could become the chief ’s worst nightmare. The chief ’s greatest fear was starting to unfold; it looked like it was shaping up to be a Line of Duty Death for our department. The words were now undeniable and haunting, “Two members struck by an auto on I-64. They are en route to Norfolk General at this time.” As I was rapidly getting dressed to report to the emergency room, the phone rang for a second time that hectic early morning.

This time the voice on the other end of the line was familiar, but was just as blunt as the first person who had called. One of the onduty battalion fire chiefs was calling me to make sure that I got the very important horrible news. The chief also provided me with an update of the status of our two members. I was told that firefighter Nick Nelson was in critical condition and may not survive the hour. The other member, also a firefighter, was banged up a bit, but would be just fine after a short recovery period.

As my heart was pounding through my chest, I responded to the hospital. It seemed like an eternity before I arrived there to be with my injured firefighter and brother Nick Nelson. For the past two days, Nick had attended a command safety seminar at our fire training center. Nelson sat in the front row and I spoke to him each day and was glad to receive the positive feedback about Chief Brunacini’s command presentation. Nelson was an excellent firefighter and good (same hometown) friends with my aide, Lt. (now Chief) John DiBacco. Losing Nick would be very difficult to deal with for the department.

At the Hospital

The images in the emergency room were just what I expected for this trauma alert. The scenes were what I have come to know all too well in my 30-plus years of service. I could only describe the trauma bay treatment area as organized chaos or perhaps “emergency medical poetry” to the trained eye. About a dozen of Tidewater Virginia’s best doctors and nurses were attending to and surrounding Nick Nelson when I walked into the hospital.

My thoughts wandered into what actions that I needed to take right away to be of best help to my critically injured fireground warrior. My first thoughts were to start notification of his family, and to make sure that our union president and our governing body were aware of this tragic and unfolding situation.

I remembered that a lot of work had to be completed to protect Nick’s public safety officer death benefits to ensure that his family would be taken care of financially if the worst were to occur. It was difficult to believe that our department was going to lose an outstanding young member in the line of duty in such a needless way – while I was at the helm. Simply unacceptable and heartbreaking, maybe this was just a nightmare (a very bad dream) and I was still asleep!

As I fought my way up to his bedside to say goodbye to a fellow firefighter that I had just met at the command conference, my chest grew tight and breathing became difficult. When I jockeyed into position for an unobstructed view, I realized that he was not on a ventilator (which I was sure that had to be in place by now).

That was a big surprise and of great concern. Next, I noticed that he was moving his legs and my thoughts changed just a little; maybe there was a glimpse of hope for him to make it through this tragedy.

When I placed my hand on the top of Nelson’s right shoulder, he looked at me and spoke.

I can still remember his exact words. He said, “Chief, if anyone ever tells you that a really bad hangover is just like being run over by a car, you can tell them that they are full of (crap)!” I don’t think that I have ever been happier to hear a firefighter complain to me. Based on the treatment (actually lack of), Nelson’s initial presentation and good humor, I knew that everything was going to work out for us.

Preventing Harm to Our Own

When we deliver our services out on the street in the great state of New York, we often lose sight of the dangers that lurk out there for us all of the time. About 20-plus percent of all firefighter Line of Duty Deaths happen while responding to and returning from alarms.

Included in this high percentage of Line of Duty Deaths are the members who are killed while working in the streets of our communities, much like the description in the opening case study that you have just read.

Considering the sheer number of these needless and preventable accidents and the general severity
of them, the time is now to take action and make organizational changes that will keep our brothers and sisters safe when they go to work in proximity of vehicular traffic, regardless of the road size or speed limit.

Essentially, there are four broad categories that identify how firefighter injuries and fatalities occur. Therefore, the same information can be used to prevent accidents from happening.

Most firefighter injuries and fatalities are highly predictable events and therefore can be prevented. This case study unfortunately falls into this category.

roadThe Four Root Causes of Firefighter Accidents

By carefully examining each of the four factors, a clear-cut causal determination of most accidents can be identified. Proper and correct identification of accidents will provide departments with perhaps the best tools to prevent a reoccurrence of the same situations as well as hold the keys to avoiding new mistakes. Much too often, departments tend to make the same mistakes on a repeated basis without ever learning, or wondering for that matter, how to prevent the behaviors/actions in the first place.

The four accident causing factors are:

1) Engineering controls
2) Administrative controls
3) Environmental conditions
4) Human factors (inputs/decisions)

The information that is gained by a formal departmental review will provide a detailed guide for change to prevent reoccurrence of the same or similar mistakes. The accident report should indicate what policies (administrative controls) were broken, or which polices need to be changed or updated. There should be a way for the report to discuss what policies are nonexistent and need to be developed. There should be open and frank discussions about training policies (administrative controls and human factors) of the department and what needs were not being met that allowed the accident to happen.

Included in the analysis should be a review of the human factors (both decisions and actions) as a part of the recovery process.

Finally, there should be a section that covers all mechanical equipment involved (engineering factors).

The Car Fire Operation

Now back to the operations on Interstate 64. Engine 14 was out the door and under way in less than a minute. The 14’s are one of the busiest engine companies in the system. They were operating with the minimum crew of four members. Within the fourth minute (timely response) after the initial car fire dispatch, the lieutenant was reporting on location with fire under the hood of a car on the interstate. The vehicle fire just happened to have occurred about a mile from Fire Station 14’s quarters. The dispatcher indicated that the car was located in the HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane of the interstate. This fact played a major part in the action that leads up to the firefighters being struck by an oncoming vehicle.

The weather conditions that early morning were difficult at best. A heavy rain downpour occurred hours before and caused moderate fog conditions. Smoke from the car fire laid down at the street level and, coupled with the fog, caused a great reduction in visibility. In fact, the fire engine operator described that he proceeded past the burning car at about 5 mph because of the very low level of visibility just downwind of the well-involved car.

Engine 14 took a position in the regular (not HOV) westbound lane a few feet past the burning vehicle on the opposite side of a permanently installed concrete “Jersey barrier.” After a brief sizeup, the company commander ordered a fire attack with a 1 3/4- inch pre-connected hose line. In order to conduct the requested fire attack, the “jump seat” firefighters had to hop over the Jersey barrier. This perhaps was the last critical decision that was flawed and would be a major factor in the cause of this accident.

Nelson was on the nozzle and started a direct attack on the fire under the hood by directing the stream into the left wheel well of the car. This action placed Nelson out into the active lane by about six to eight feet – perhaps the worst place to be on a 55-mph interstate on a very low visibility morning. At the same time, the
other injured firefighter was attempting to open the hood of the car (using the hood latch in the passenger compartment) to allow unobstructed access to the engine fire. The lieutenant was at the center of the hood to complete the opening process once the hood release latch was engaged. By sheer luck, the lieutenant had the only protected position of the three attacking members working at the alarm that morning.

Without warning, another car smashed into the left rear side of the burning car. Now out of control, the striking vehicle continued down the side of the burning car, maybe delivering a glancing blow to one of our members. Perhaps he was able to dive into the passenger compartment for protection from the ensuing impact and not struck. He was not able to explain what had happened to him at that exact time. Simply put, he could not recall this action when asked.

Nick Nelson was not so lucky. He took a direct hit from a car traveling at least 50 mph. Thank goodness that Nick was wearing full personal protective equipment as he was lifted up onto the top of the fender and carried about 50 feet down the highway. Being a highly trained firefighter, Nelson never let go of the nozzle and was pulled off of the car when the line became tight. It was at this point that the car ran over both of Nick’s legs at the knee. Tire marks were left on his turnout pants and could be prominently seen.

Once the commotion was over, all three members rushed to Nelson’s assistance. The lieutenant called into the communications center for additional assistance. The boss asked for an ambulance for Nelson and a second engine company and battalion chief for the fire and accident investigation. As the three members were applying advanced life support care for the injured member, the unthinkable occurred. Yet another vehicle, this time a pickup truck, struck the burning car. By now, the fire was completely consuming the original vehicle, underlining the poor visibility to the oncoming traffic. The pickup pulled off of the road and came to a stop in the breakdown lane behind the car that had struck Nelson. Now the members had to check on the well being of the pickup’s driver by going back onto the interstate, which seemed to get riskier by the minute.

At about this time, reinforcements began to arrive. The Virginia State Police blocked the travel lane behind the burning car. The ambulance (Rescue 14) arrived in a few minutes to transport Nelson; Engine 9 and Battalion 3 arrived to help stabilize the car fire situation. The 9’s were able to quickly extinguish the fully involved car while many more assets arrived to help close down the entire HOV roadway. With the traffic managed properly, the incident was fairly simple to handle and bring under control.

Aftermath and Summary

Nelson was admitted into the hospital for treatment. In fact, he took up residence there for the next few weeks. He was diagnosed with a broken pelvic bone and severely sprained knee ligaments. His doctors (along with the fire chief) were amazed by the moderate nature of the human damage from such a horrible mechanism of injury. Within six weeks, he began to show up at the station before and after his physical therapy appointments.

Nelson returned to duty a few months later, to an outpouring of support by the community. In fact, Virginia Secretary of Public Safety John Marshall traveled from Richmond to visit him in the hospital. Considering that this had never happen before, it was quite an impressive visit by a state cabinet member.

The close to Nelson’s story took an unexpected twist a few months after his reported complete recovery. The only explanation must have been some sort of head trauma that was not detected by the hospital. Firefighter Nick Nelson has become Officer Nick Nelson. He left the fire service to pursue policing as a career. However, after a short stint as a federal postal inspector, Nick found his way home to Norfolk Fire and serves as a captain assigned to one of the rescue squad companies as of this writing.

The other injured firefighter was treated and released from the hospital the same morning. After just six or so shifts, he was completely recovered and back to full duty. As part of the recovery process for this event, a wonderful training package was developed by the lieutenant involved and presented personally to all of the operating members in hopes of preventing any reoccurrences of this near disaster. The department made several major changes to improve the safety of the members that must operate out on the street everyday.

Dennis Rubin, principal partner in the fire protection consulting firm D. L. Rubin & Associates, and Bruce Varner, a training expert with nearly 50 years in the fire service, will present “Traffic Incident Management: Life & Death in the Fast Lane” at the FASNY Convention’s Sixth Annual Training Series August 21. Learn more or register here.

This story was originally published in the March 2003 issue of Firehouse Magazine.