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40-Year-Old Firefighter Dies While Driving a Water Tender to a Fire—Michigan

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

F2021-06 Date Released: February 2023

Executive Summary

A 40-year-old volunteer firefighter (Driver) was driving a fire department (FD) water tender to a fire along with a candidate firefighter (Candidate) when he became unconscious and subsequently died. The Driver told the Candidate that he was not feeling well and then collapsed over the steering wheel. The Candidate was able to stop the water tender, set the parking brake, and then move the Driver out of the vehicle and to the ground. The Candidate noted that the Driver was pulseless and called on the fire radio for assistance as he started chest compressions. A fire crew that was also enroute to the fire arrived within minutes to assist the Candidate with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). As the fire crews were performing CPR, an advanced life support (ALS) transport ambulance arrived and initiated ALS care as the Driver was loaded in the ambulance and transported to the nearest hospital. Continued resuscitation efforts enroute and in the emergency department (ED) were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead.

The medical examiner’s report listed the cause of death as atherosclerotic coronary artery disease. The medical examiner found severe atherosclerosis of the left anterior descending coronary artery and left circumflex coronary artery. Mild atherosclerosis of the aorta was also noted.

Key Recommendations

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) offers the following recommendations to reduce the risk of heart attacks and sudden cardiac arrest among firefighters at this and other fire departments across the country.

  • Key Recommendation #1: Implement comprehensive pre-placement and annual medical evaluations consistent with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1582 Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments, which should include a baseline electrocardiogram (EKG) in all individuals prior to engagement in any strenuous physical activity to rule out any underlying cardiac abnormalities [NFPA 2022].
  • Key Recommendation #2: Consider a preplacement cardiac exercise stress test to determine the capacity for physical exertion and decrease the risk for sudden cardiac death.
  • Key Recommendation #3: Implement an annual fitness evaluation consistent with NFPA 1582 Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments to ensure personnel are physically fit to perform job expectations at emergencies [NFPA 2022].

Read the full report