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Career Fire Fighter Dies After Falling Down Unsecured Elevator Shaft While Searching for the Seat of a Smoldering Fire – Illinois

FF ShieldDeath in the Line of Duty…A report from the NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program

F2015-18 Date Released: June 26, 2017

Executive Summary

On December 14, 2015, a 42-year-old male career fire fighter was critically injured after falling down an unsecured elevator shaft while searching for the seat of a smoldering fire in a two-story, Type-1, brick warehouse. The fire fighter was a member of Tower Ladder 34, the second truck company to arrive at the 25,000-square-foot vacant structure following the dispatch at 0241 hours. The arriving crews found light smoke conditions and no heat on the first floor. The incident commander, Battalion Chief 23, sized up the conditions on the first floor and directed Tower Ladder 34 and Truck 17 crews to the second floor where they encountered thick, white smoke banked down to floor level, creating almost zero visibility. The Tower Ladder 34 fire fighter advanced up the stairs on the west side of the structure with a fire fighter from Truck 17. At the top of the stairs, the two fire fighters encountered near-zero visibility but no heat. The Tower Ladder 34 fire fighter turned to the left while the Truck 17 fire fighter turned to the right to begin searching for the fire. The Tower Ladder 34 lieutenant, who had previously advanced to the second floor using the same stairway, and a fire fighter advanced straight ahead and encountered open holes in the second-story floor. He immediately radioed “Emergency, Emergency, I have openings in the second floor” over the fireground radio channel. At the same time, Battalion Chief 23 also observed a 10 foot by 10 foot hole in the floor on the first floor. He immediately acknowledged the Tower Ladder 34 lieutenant’s report and repeated the emergency alert over the radio to all companies announcing holes in the first and second floors. Approximately 90 seconds later, the Tower Ladder 34 fire fighter fell down an unsecured elevator shaft on the second floor located near Side B into the basement. The incident commander, located on the first floor near the Side B loading dock doors, saw the Tower Ladder 34 fire fighter fall and immediately radioed a Mayday. The Tower Ladder 34 fire fighter was removed from the basement at approximately 0302 hours and transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Contributing Factors

  • Vacant structure undergoing renovation
  • Elevator removed during renovation work
  • Inadequate shielding of flammable materials during welding operations
  • Multiple unsecured openings in floors
  • Unsecured floor openings not immediately broadcast to everyone on fireground
  • Deep-seated fire that smoldered undetected for approximately 36 hours
  • Zero visibility conditions on second floor
  • Fire fighter operating alone (searching on second floor).


Key Recommendations

  • Fire departments should ensure that crew integrity is properly maintained by sight, voice, or radio contact when operating in an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere.
  • Fire departments should continually train on becoming proficient in search operations (residential, rope-assisted, large area, etc.) with emphasis on entering low and crawling when visibility is limited or obscured.
  • Fire departments should train fire fighters on the principles of situational awareness.
  • Fire departments should use risk management principles at all structure fires and emergency response incidents.


  • Fire departments, cities, and authorities having jurisdiction should consider developing systems that allow the integration of building information into the information available to responding crews during the initial dispatch.


Read the full report