NIOSH LODD Report: Oklahoma Storm Drain Rescue

NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention
View of opening to underground storm drain looking north. Carport where fire fighters placed turnout gear is at the upper left corner of photo. (NIOSH photo)

On May 23, 2015, a 46-year-old male career fire captain drowned after stepping into a flooded catch basin at the entrance of an unguarded underground storm drain.

Read the Report:
Career Fire Captain Drowns After Stepping Into Flooded Storm Drain During Floodwater Rescue

At approximately 2223 hours, the local fire department was dispatched to rescue civilians trapped in their residences by rising floodwater following heavy rain and thunderstorms in the local area. Fire fighters responded to find the city street and entrance to a small housing development flooded by storm water runoff flowing both under and over the street just west of the entrance to the housing development.

Fire fighters worked for over an hour in floodwater ranging from a few inches deep to over 3 feet deep in some areas to evacuate 10 civilians including 6 children from three flooded single-family duplex units on the east side of the development. Other residents were sheltered in place while waiting for city-provided transportation. Throughout the incident, fire fighters experienced radio communication issues (both transmitting and receiving) due to the falling rain and working in wet conditions. At times, the Engine 2 captain was able to communicate over the radio with the incident commander. At other times, radio transmissions were garbled.

After the civilian rescues were completed, the Engine 2 captain proceeded to walk along the west edge of the floodwater to speak with the incident commander face-to-face. As he approached the location of the incident commander’s vehicle, he stepped into a flooded storm water catch basin and was pulled into the 36-inch unguarded opening that led to the underground storm drain. Fire fighters heard the struggling captain yell for help and rushed to assist him. The Engine 2 fire fighter 1 was pulled inside the drain while attempting to assist the struggling captain. Moments later, the captain was also pulled inside the drain.

The Engine 2 fire fighter was propelled 276 feet through the storm drain, emerging where the drain emptied into the creek east of the development. The captain became entangled approximately 95 feet inside the drain and drowned. The Engine 2 fire fighter 1 was hospitalized following the incident.

Contributing Factors:

  • Storm drain entrance not guarded, grated, or marked.
  • Insufficient hazard identification and risk assessment analysis for flood prone areas.
  • Operational level for technical rescue operations not established as defined in NFPA 1670.
  • Lack of SOPs and training on water rescue operations.
  • Incident safety officer not designated at technical rescue incident.
  • Inoperable radios caused the captain to walk to command post.
  • Floodwater obstructed view of the catch basin and storm drain.

Key Recommendations:

  • Fire departments should ensure that fire fighters who engage in water rescue operations are properly trained and equipped for the assigned task as outlined by NFPA 1670 Standard on Operations and Training for Technical Search and Rescue Incidents.
  • Fire departments and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ) should conduct a hazard identification and risk assessment analysis of their response areas and incident scenes to determine what resources are needed to conduct technical search and rescue operations in accordance with NFPA 1670.
  • Fire departments and fire fighters should be trained to understand the concept and hazards associated with differential pressure, especially those trained for water search and rescue operations.
  • Fire departments should ensure that fire fighters are equipped with and use the appropriate personal protective clothing and equipment when engaged in water rescue operations.

Additionally, authorities having jurisdiction (federal, state, regional, and local) should:

Consider enacting and enforcing requirements for identifying, marking and guarding underground storm drains.


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