Texas Suit Alleges Military Bootcamp Style Training Caused Fatal Heat Stroke

The family of a Texas firefighter who died while undergoing advance training characterized as “a fraternity-style hazing ritual [intended] to sort out which firefighters were ‘tough’ enough” has filed a multi-million dollar wrongful death suit against those responsible for the program.

Neal Wade Smith, 46, died in September, 2012 while undergoing an advanced mask confidence and firefighter survival training program hosted by the Industrial Safety Training Council (“ITSC”), the State Firemen’s & Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, and the East Texas Firemen’s & Fire Marshals’ Association, at the Beaumont Emergency Services Training (“BEST”) Complex. Smith was a fire captain with the Atascocita Volunteer Fire Department.

The complaint alleges that the “East Texas Association design[d] a ‘smoke divers’ training class to be as grueling as possible, the State Association approve[d] the curriculum, and the ITSC allow[ed] the East Texas Association to present the classes at ITSC’s training school.”

The twenty-two page complaint contains three counts, alleging negligence, gross negligence, and wrongful death. It was filed by Captain Smith’s widow, Penelope, on behalf of herself, their two children and Captain’s Smith’s estate. Among the allegations:

  • In 1996, the East Texas Association developed the “smoke divers” class.
  • [T]he objective of the class is for firefighters to learn how to survive—while wearing full gear—if their [SCBA] run out of air during a fire.
  • The East Texas Association boasts that its class is an “extremely challenging” and “intensely physical” experience designed to “take the student to his/her limit.” Having completed the course themselves, the instructors approached smoke divers training as a fraternity-style hazing ritual to sort out which firefighters were “tough” enough to display the smoke divers completion badge on their uniforms.
  • Over the years, the East Texas Association changed the smoke divers class to become even more grueling
  • For years, participants have complained to the East Texas Association that instructors were inattentive to the risk of heat injuries and needed to include more hydration stations.
  • [N]umerous students in previous classes suffered from heat-related illnesses that required medical intervention, including emergency room treatment.
  • Class began on a scorching Saturday in mid-September, with the outside heat index reaching 92.2 degrees. Instructors and the ITSC knew that the weather forecast called for scorching conditions. Capt. Smith arrived at 6:30 a.m. for the day’s only air-conditioned activity, a 30-minute slideshow. Apart from a few slides during this half-hour opening speech, course instructors never mentioned safety protocols. Heat stress, heat-related illness, rehab protocol, hydration, rest breaks, and heat safety rules were never discussed at all.
  • One student arrived late on the first morning of class. Instructors required the entire class to perform push-ups as a “punishment” to the whole class for the late arrival. According to an investigation by the Texas State Fire Marshal, this episode was merely one example of the instructors’ “military boot camp approach.”
  • [O]ne student told an instructor that he felt like vomiting, and the instructor replied “puke and keep going.” The student then passed out inside the [training prop] and had to be removed. Paramedics gave him a popsicle, but no one ever checked his core temperature or his blood glucose. While the student ate his popsicle, the instructors cajoled him to complete two more drills, warning that if he accepted intravenous fluid, he would have to visit the hospital and be disqualified from the class.
  • On the first day of training alone, two students in Capt. Smith’s class were treated for heat stress, and three more students quit the program because they considered it to be unsafe.
  • [T]he student who passed out on the first day of class told instructors that he had been vomiting all night. Nonetheless, no one ever checked that student’s vital signs before starting the second day of class. In fact—after a 10-hour day of training that instructors described as an “intensely physical” experience designed to “take the student to his/her limit”—no one checked any student’s vital signs at any time.
  • On day two, training continued for ten more hours. Despite the litany of heat-related risks and illnesses that became obvious on the first day of training, instructors only increased their abusive tactics on the second day, when the outside heat index soared to 91.4 degrees with almost no wind. In between drills, instructors again forced students to “rehabilitate” on unshaded metal benches.
  • As Capt. Smith and his fellow students maneuvered through the building, instructors repeatedly ensnared them with bungee cords, threw firecrackers at them, banged drums, and yelled that the students were “p***ies.”
  • While attempting to navigate the cinder-block building, another student—who spent the previous night vomiting from heat exhaustion—“saw red and feared for his life.” After instructors refused to stop snaring his [SCBA] tank with bungee cords, that student fell unconscious. As soon as he awoke, he had to remove his face mask to continue breathing. As a result, instructors disqualified that student from the class—but forced him to crawl through another obstacle before he was allowed to exit the building.
  • Despite yet another medical emergency, neither the instructors nor the ITSC took any steps to assure that other students were not suffering from the same heat-related injuries. Instead, they pressed students to complete the hardest phase of the class.
  • After struggling through the morning session, Capt. Smith arrived at the six-story training tower that marks the class’s final course. The entire tower is filled with obstacles and artificial smoke. Students enter the tower by climbing an outdoor staircase and then maneuvering downward from floor to floor.
  • Capt. Smith entered the tower with two other students. Just two floors into the six-floor drill, one of those students began struggling to keep up and had to quit the class due to physical stress. On that same floor, Capt. Smith encountered problems switching his [SCBA] tank as quickly as instructors demanded. Because the metal threading on his [SCBA] tank was stripped, it took him much longer than normal to swap tanks. According to an eyewitness, instructors refused to believe Capt. Smith when he told them that his air tank was damaged, and they yelled at him for five minutes to raise his stress level before finally allowing him to try another tank.
  • Capt. Smith proceeded through two more floors of the tower with his lone remaining teammate. The next-to-last floor was filled with wood landscaping timbers, tires, pallets, golf balls, metal pipes, and marbles on the floor. A previous student in the class had even written to instructors that they needed to “back off” on that floor of the tower because their tactics on the floor were too intense.
  • While on this floor, Capt. Smith started losing his breath, and one of the instructors told him to turn off the “PASS device,” or warning alarm, on his air tank. The instructors, as firefighters themselves, knew that PASS devices are used in actual fires and in training scenarios to promote firefighter safety. If a firefighter stops moving for more than a few seconds, his PASS device blares a loud distress signal that allows rescuers to find him.
  • With his PASS device disabled at the instructor’s command, Capt. Smith climbed through an obstacle on the second floor. But he then stumbled and, for no apparent reason, reentered the same obstacle that he just completed. An instructor responded by yelling at Capt. Smith for nearly five minutes. Finally, Capt. Smith stopped and kneeled. The instructor told another student to walk around Capt. Smith and finish the course without him.
  • Minutes after Capt. Smith appeared disoriented and stopped responding to instructors, someone called “Mayday” and finally evacuated the now-unconscious Capt. Smith from the tower. Had Capt. Smith’s PASS device been active, instructors would have been forced to call a “Mayday” alert much sooner.
  • Even during the evacuation of Capt. Smith, instructors continued to accelerate the unsafe conditions. The student who had to walk past Capt. Smith’s body fell down a stairwell inside the tower. At the bottom of the steps—and during the evacuation of Capt. Smith—two instructors nonetheless forced that student to finish the obstacle course before he was allowed to exit the tower.
  • When an ambulance arrived, Capt. Smith was not breathing and had no pulse. His internal temperature was 107.9 degrees and his skin was hot to the touch. Even as Capt. Smith was being rushed to the hospital with no pulse, Gifford and an ITSC employee decided to continue the exercise in the training tower. Yet another student began displaying visible signs of heat stress by talking nonsense, lunging forward, and collapsing into an obstacle. That student too was evacuated and hospitalized. In response, instructors allowed the remaining students to take a short “break” on the sun-soaked metal benches before deciding to press forward with more training after two students were hospitalized for heat stroke.
  • An autopsy revealed that Capt. Smith died from hyperthermia caused by the smoke divers training. Although Capt. Smith was an organ donor, his internal organs were so badly damaged from smoke divers training that they could not be donated.
  • The Texas Fire Marshal and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (“NIOSH”) investigated the circumstances of Capt. Smith’s death. Both agencies concluded that he died needlessly from preventable heat injuries that could have been avoided if the instructors, the East Texas Association, and ITSC had taken even minimal precautions to prevent a repeat of the numerous heat-related emergencies that students had been suffering at smoke divers classes for years before Capt. Smith enrolled.
  • Of the 22 firefighters who began the class with Capt. Smith, six were forced to quit and three were evacuated for medical emergencies. Capt. Smith died. Moreover, NIOSH interviewed 10 surviving students from Capt. Smith’s class, and every one of those students reported symptoms of heat illness.
  • In spite of the overwhelming evidence that their intentional disregard for safety had injured virtually every student in the class, the instructors and the East Texas Association showed no remorse. The day after Capt. Smith died, Gifford—an East Texas Association officer—effectively blamed Capt. Smith. “As tragic as this is, it’s really more or less coming down to the strict limitations of the individual,” Gifford told KFDM News. “We are going to take a completely new look and see if there is anything we can do to get our individuals to be a little more proactive in their own safety.” But if Gifford and his fellow defendants had been “a little more proactive” in preventing the heat-related injuries they witnessed for years, Capt. Smith would still be alive.

Besides naming the three organizations as co-defendants, the complaint also lists the individual instructors but identifies them merely as John Does 1 through 10. It indicates that the plaintiffs will amend the complaint to name the individual instructors once their identities are determined through discovery.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Smith v East Texas Firemens and Fire Marshals Assn

Here is a copy of the Texas Fire Marshal’s report into the incident: fmloddsmith

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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