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Career Fire Fighter Critically Injured During Surf Rescue Training Dies Two Days Later – Hawaii


FF ShieldDeath in the Line of Duty…A summary of a NIOSH fire fighter fatality investigation

F2016-12 Date Released: October 25, 2019

Executive Summary

On June 16, 2016, a 63-year-old male career fire fighter died two days after being critically injured during a surf rescue training exercise. The fire fighter, acting as the swimmer, was riding prone on the yellow rescue sled being towed by a rescue watercraft operated by another fire fighter (see cover photo). After cresting a large wave, the operator of the watercraft noticed that the swimmer had fallen off and discovered him floating face down in the surf. The operator jumped off of the watercraft, swam to the swimmer and got his head out of the water. The operator swam the unconscious swimmer back to the watercraft and placed him on the rescue sled. He boarded the watercraft and started towing the sled towards shore, however the swimmer fell off again. The operator jumped off the watercraft a second time to come to the aid of swimmer. This time the safety lanyard for the engine kill switch on the watercraft broke and the watercraft continued moving away. An off-duty fire fighter happened to be surfing nearby and noticed the empty watercraft motoring away and saw a fire fighter’s yellow rescue helmet in the surf water. He surfed a wave over to the watercraft, boarded it, and drove to the two fire fighters in the white water. The operator and the off duty fire fighter got the swimmer onto the sled, continued on to the shore where they immediately initiated CPR. The fire fighters from their company who had remained on the beach drove to the site where the swimmer had been brought to shore and assisted with resuscitation efforts. Rescue arrived on the scene and the swimmer was transported to a local hospital where he died 2 days later.

Contributing Factors

  • Fire fighter riding prone on rescue sled while cresting large wave
  • High risk surf conditions
  • Accountability and communications, water rescue crew operating in surf while out of visual contact with shore-based personnel
  • Water rescue crew operating alone in a dangerous high risk surf condition
  • Failed safety kill switch lanyard

Key Recommendations

  • Fire departments and organizations who operate rescue water craft (RWC) should consider having the swimmer ride seated on the RWC vs riding kneeling or prone on the rescue sled.
  • Fire departments should ensure that the incident commander conducts a risk-versus-gain analysis prior to committing to special operations in high risk surf conditions and continues the assessment throughout the operations.
  • Fire departments should ensure that accountability and communications of all water assets are maintained even when crews operate out of site from land based crews.
  • Fire departments should consider sending two rescue water rescue craft that operate in pairs in high risk surf conditions and always during training.
  • Fire departments should ensure that a safety officer trained in the special operations discipline is appointed at all special operation water rescue incidents and training events.
  • Fire Departments should ensure that safety kill switch lanyards are replaced/repaired in accordance with a preventative maintenance program.


Read the full report