Report issued about firefighter killed during chainsaw training

Firefighter John Curry. Photo by Volusia County Fire Services

A 17-month investigation by the Florida State Fire Marshal’s office identified a number of mistakes that contributed to the death of firefighter John Curry during chain saw training on November 27, 2007.   Curry was 30 years old and had been a member of Volusia County Fire Services for 10 months. He was training to be a member of the elite Firewalker Wildland Team and left behind a wife and two children.

The incident occurred during a training class at the Volusia County Fire Training Center near Datona Beach, Florida.

According to the report the trainees watched only 2 hours of a 4 hour training video. Then during tree felling field training, the cuts on a pine tree were not completed properly, causing the tree to fall in an unexpected direction.  It fell onto Curry’s escape route, killing him.  The report said there was no one at the training site to keep him from running where the tree eventually fell.

The State Fire Marshal’s office issued a Notice of violation for:

  • Failed to provide adequate training to meet “Trained Commensurate to Duty” requirement.
  • Failed to provide a safe workplace.

This was the first death at the training center which was established in 1988.  Nearly 15,000 firefighters receive training there each year.

HERE is a November 27, 2007 report about the accident.

UPDATE: April 8, 2009 @ 6:30 a.m.

The State Fire Marshal’s report is available on our Documents page.  According to the report, Mr. Curry, the victim, had not previously received any formal training on chain saw use or tree felling.  During their training that day, they viewed half of a four-hour video from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group S-212 Chainsaw Use course.

Photo from the cover of the Florida State Fire Marshal's report
Photo from the cover of the Florida State Fire Marshal’s report

Mr. Curry was the swamper while another trainee was felling a snag, a dead pine tree that was 40 feet in height and 18 inches in diameter.  Neither were fully trained.

The report says:

The cuts into the tree appear to have been made in such a manner that the tree had a “hang-point” rather than the “hinge” described in the video.  This caused the tree to turn counter-clockwise as it began to fall, which caused the tree to move 135 degrees from its intended fall.  When the tree started its fall, the assigned instructor, who was already half way down the escape route, saw the direction the tree was falling, ran the rest of the way down the escape route (away from the tree base), later turning 90 degrees to the left to get out of the tree’s way.

Mr. Curry also ran down the escape route and was struck by the tree trunk and killed.   The report said if he had stayed with the sawyer he most likely would not have been injured.

According to the NWCG Field Manager’s Course Guide, it should take 24 to 36 hours to put on S-212. Mr. Curry and 13 other firefighters were participating in a monthly drill which included a “refresher course for qualified operators culminating with the felling of three dead trees”.

Aside from the issue of a shortened training course, starting untrained firefighters on a 40-foot high, 18″ diameter snag, is ill advised at best.  Snags are extremely difficult to fall safely even for experienced fallers.  I used to say, “Mama said don’t f**k with snags!”.  The are unpredictable, holding wood has little effect, tops can break off, and they usually have many widow-making dead limbs that could fall at any time.

Until it was replaced by a plastic hard hat, I used to wear an aluminum hard hat that had a dent in the top put there by a falling limb while I was cutting a snag on a fire.  Another large limb that fell at the same time broke the back of my swamper.  Mama said “Don’t f**k with snags”.

Our condolences to the family of firefighter John Curry.

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