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Children of a firefighter who died while battling a fire in an abandoned building filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the building owners. Firefighters were dispatched to a fire at the abandoned building on Dec. 22. The man was sent inside to help extinguish the blaze while others cut holes in the roof to ventilate the building. The roof suddenly collapsed, killing two men inside and injuring 19 others. The cause of death was listed as “compressional asphyxia from a roof collapse.”

The plaintiffs argued that their father’s death could have been prevented had the building been up to code or torn down. Records indicated that the owners were previously cited with 14 separate violations, but the building was never repaired and it became a haven for homeless people seeking shelter.

The lawsuit follows the release of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Firefighter Fatality investigation report which found that poor communications, an insufficient number of radios and the lack of a system to alert the Fire Department of hazardous buildings put the firefighters at risk; the plaintiffs believe the Fire Department did their job properly and negligence rests solely with the building owners. Only 5 of the 13 firefighters inside the building when the roof collapsed had radios, and none of them provided supervisors outside with a description of the internal conditions. The report also stated that supervisors outside the building were unaware what was occurring inside as flames crawled up the wooden beams to the ceiling. Was the lack of communication because they were too busy searching for occupants and containing the blaze or the lack of enough radios? Investigators said the supervisors should have taken a more defensive approach and ordered more firefighters out of the building when it was apparent no one was trapped inside.

  • The Fire Department has already implemented some changes to policies and procedures; firefighters inside a building must provide more details to supervisors about the situation.
  • Tags must be hung on each fire truck that identifies every firefighter assigned to the vehicle to ensure accountability when on a call.
  • Providing a radio for every firefighter won’t be implemented until sometime in 2012.

If these procedures had been in place that December day would these fatalities have been avoidable? What about the fact that the city’s Department of Buildings lacks procedures to provide firefighters the necessary information about dangerous buildings?

More than 50% of structural collapse fatalities occur when firefighters become trapped. Structural collapses can happen quickly and without warning during a fire and injuries can be serious or fatal; many factors may have contributed to these fatalities. The litigation process in this case may take months, even years. The plaintiff said she hopes the lawsuit would spur tougher legislation and enforcement of building codes to promote firefighter safety.

"We know that when a fire strikes, firefighters always do their job, even if it means going into hazardous buildings," said the plaintiff. "We need to protect our firefighters from the dangers of abandoned and neglected buildings by holding the owners accountable. The law needs to be adjusted so the city has better enforcement techniques."

The report recommends that the city follows New York’s lead by posting signs on hazardous vacant buildings to alert firefighters to the dangers inside. The Fire Department has been working identify dangerous buildings and structures to be demolished. No word yet on new laws as of yet, but let’s hope that tragedy will lead to some drastic changes to improve the safety of all firefighters.

Mark Bello has thirty-three years experience as a trial lawyer and twelve years as an underwriter and situational analyst in the lawsuit funding industry. He is the owner and founder of Lawsuit Financial Corporation which helps provide legal finance cash flow solutions and consulting when necessities of life litigation funding is needed by plaintiffs involved in pending, personal injury litigation. Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Business Associate of the Florida, Tennessee, and Colorado Associations for Justice, a member of the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.

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