STILLWATER — Whether Thomas Russell “Rusty” Topping was a member of the Barnsdall volunteer fire department has been the topic of legal controversy.
But there’s no question he suffered a firefighter’s death.
Firefighting is grueling, strenuous work. The harshness of the job was fully reflected May 31, 2008 when Topping and 24 other students showed up for live burn firefighter training exercises at the Oklahoma State University Fire Service Training Professional Skills Center at Stillwater.
It was hot and humid. Temperatures started out the training day at 75 degrees, but climbed to 91 degrees by mid-afternoon.
While not scorching hot by Oklahoma standards, it was the hottest day to date that year. Students had not yet become accustomed to such temperatures, according to the final death investigation report prepared by a four-person team selected by the Oklahoma State Firefighters Association at the request of the OSU training service.
The report presented conflicting accounts of Topping’s apparent physical preparedness for the challenge.
Topping, who was 28 years old, stood 6-feet tall and weighed 280 pounds.
“Firefighter Topping was ... considered one of the best, most enthusiastic, fittest students in the course by both the students and the instructors,” investigators reported.
However, they also reported that the state medical examiner, who listed the cause of death as hypothermia, found “significant medical conditions of hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and obesity.”
Topping noted in his registration materials that he had been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that causes abdominal pain and diarrhea. He failed to mention that he had flare ups that morning and the previous day, which would have made him more susceptible to dehydration — an ever-present danger for firefighters.
On-site emergency medical services personnel were not familiar with the symptoms and potential complications of ulcerative colitis, investigators reported.
Topping was no stranger to hard work.
“It was well-known that firefighter Topping worked a full day for the City of Bartlesville hand-digging ditches in the hot sun,” investigators reported. “However, he always reported to class on time and was the first to volunteer and the last to leave.”
Topping enthusiastically displayed those traits that day, as firefighters were put through a day-long series of strenuous live burn training exercises designed to teach them how to attack fires in buildings —both upstairs and below ground — as well as put out fires in vehicles, dumpsters, electrical panels and hidden in walls.
Heat takes toll
The heat quickly began to take its toll on students. who performed their tasks while in full bunker gear and wearing self contained breathing apparatus.
At 11 a.m. a Copan firefighter named Call was overcome by heat exhaustion. An ambulance was summoned to take him to the Stillwater Medical Center.
Thirty minutes later, another firefighter named Anthony went down, overcome by heat, as well. After being taken to the rehabilitation station to cool down, Anthony returned to training.
“He stated that he was going to return to his group and finish the process ‘even if it killed him,’” investigators reported. “He had worked too hard and the process was so hard that he ‘was not going to go through it again no matter what.’”
As the day wore on, other firefighters reported difficulty from the heat.
One firefighter told investigators he removed his face piece and opened his coat to cool down after finishing a rotation on the fire hose nozzle, even though he thought he “got in trouble for it.”
He said he was “too hot and they could just kick him out if they didn’t like it,” investigators said.
By mid-afternoon “most of the students were near exhaustion,” the report said.
An instructor yelled at students when he found all but Topping sitting when they were supposed to be assisting the rapid intervention team, which was responsible for watching other firefighters while they attacked a blaze to make sure none of them got in trouble.
“All present reported that firefighter Topping appeared to be holding up better than everyone else. He never complained about anything,” investigators reported.
Topping told an instructor who had been overcome by the heat that he worked outside digging ditches all day and this didn’t bother him at all — “in fact, he was enjoying it.”
Break in protocol
Topping made it through all the live burn exercises, only to collapse in a restroom at the end of the day.
He had gone to the restroom by himself, a break in protocol from the training center’s buddy system. Topping was pronounced dead a short time later after being taken to Stillwater Medical Center.
OSU has been training firefighters since 1931 and has an excellent safety record. Topping is the only student death in the program’s history, according to Bryan West, facilities manager for the OSU Professional Skills Center.
Safety is stressed every day, he said.
The investigative report contains much evidence of that. An accountability system was set up that included a buddy system. Breaks were scheduled between firefighting exercises. Water and Gatorade stations were set up. Instructors preached proper hydration. The list of safety measures was lengthy.
Still, investigators found numerous problems and recommended changes:
“A culture existed to cause instructors to believe that students would come forward when they needed a break, and students to believe they were inadequate if they came forward for a break,” the report said.
No ambulance was on site during training exercises.
Training was conducted regardless of outside temperatures.
Changes had been made in 2005 that added additional training stations. From 2005 up until Topping’s 2008 death, one student out of every 3.6 live burn classes had been sent to the hospital.
Volunteer firefighters were not required to obtain medical evaluations before attending training or being allowed to fight fires.
Water jugs on site ran out of water on a few occasions, although they were refilled as soon as that was discovered.
There was no food on site, other than what students and instructors brought themselves.
There was no shade in one of the rehabilitation areas.
Several changes made
Several changes have been made since the report came out to try to improve safety, West said.
The center tries not to do training exercises in July and August.
Training days have shortened.
Training exercises are now carefully timed so firefighters aren’t in their gear under harsh conditions for prolonged time periods.
2008 National Fire Protection Association standards were adopted that require mandatory breaks for specific lengths of time between training exercises. Longer recuperation periods are required when the weather is hot. Students are required to remove their gear so they can properly cool down.
Hydration continues to be pushed and granola and other food is now provided.
Still, some of the recommended changes have not been made.
The center tried to require ambulances on site, but found the scheduling too difficult and the costs too high, West said.
Pre-training physicals still aren’t required for voluntary firefighters. West said he would love to see that happen, but called it a “touchy subject,” adding that rural volunteer fire departments would probably lose 80 percent of their firefighters if physicals were required.
‘There will always be risk’
No matter how many safety measures the center puts in place, there will always be risk because firefighting is a strenuous profession, West said.
“It’s not just jumping in a big red truck and screaming with the lights and sirens,” he said. “When you get to that house or you get that car wreck and you’ve got to pull your equipment out and you’ve got specific duties, like running into a burning building to save somebody or cutting a vehicle apart to save a life, there’s some strenuous activities going on. If it’s 120 degrees out, you’ve still got to do your job.”
Because those job situations sometimes occur, West said there are some fire chiefs in Oklahoma who would like to see their firefighters trained in 120 degree heat.
“We’re not going to do that,” he said. “There’s just a safe way of training and there’s not. Safe training has always been our Number 1 priority.”
West, who was present the day Topping died, said the death left a lasting impression.
“Every day I walk into this building and I have to provide live fire training, that event comes back to me,” he said. “It’s just not something — even after six years — that you get over.”
“When anybody asks, we’re going to do it safely,” West said. “We’re not going to take any shortcuts and we’re not going to do anything that puts anybody’s safety at risk.”