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.
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