Public Safety

After 2 firefighter deaths, questions remain

jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Two Charlotte-area firefighters have died in the line of duty in a little over a month. As the community mourns their deaths, investigators are probing what led to the fatalities.

The answers they get will be meaningful to the tens of thousands of volunteer firefighters across the state – and the people they protect.

Richard Sheltra, a volunteer with the Pineville Fire Department who was applying to work at the Charlotte Fire Department, died April 30 of apparent smoke inhalation while battling a blaze caused by a lightning strike at the Edwin Watts golf store in Pineville.

Bradley Long, a volunteer with Sherrills Ford-Terrell Fire & Rescue who was also a professional firefighter with the city of Newton, died after he and two other rescue divers had trouble beneath Lake Norman while trying to recover a swimmer’s body on Monday.

Some lingering questions:

Q. Was there a problem with the firefighters’ air supplies?

A. Having air to breathe – and realizing when that air is running out – is probably the most pivotal thing for firefighters, working in dangerous environments.

Fire officials said Sheltra’s death resulted from “inhalation (of) products of combustion,” after he got lost inside the golf store, but it’s unclear whether his equipment failed or he ran out of air and pulled his mask off.

Long and two other Sherrills Ford-Terrell divers all experienced difficulty while diving, hinting at a common problem in their trouble beneath Lake Norman. TV cameras showed one of the surviving divers being wheeled to an ambulance wearing an oxygen mask.

Sherrills Ford-Terrell Fire and Rescue uses a 2007 Scott Air Trailer to fill its tanks, but the fire department hasn’t released any details about what went wrong in Long’s dive.

Q. Is there a gap in training between volunteer fire departments and professional ones?

A. Both Sheltra and Long were working for volunteer fire companies when they died, although Long was a captain with the city of Newton and Sheltra was applying to work for Charlotte’s fire department.

Of the 28 on-duty firefighters in North Carolina who died from 2010-14, 20 were volunteers, according to an analysis by the Observer.

Training is especially important for rescue divers in Lake Norman. Experts told us parts of the lake are so murky it can be difficult for divers to see their hands in front of their faces.

Q. Could this affect how departments render mutual aid?

A. When it was time to remove Long’s body from the water, firefighters from nearly a dozen agencies formed a line, saluting, hugging each other and paying homage to their fallen comrade.

Many would have responded to calls alongside Long, as public safety agencies – especially those in small cities and towns – sign mutual aid agreements allowing them to respond to emergencies in other jurisdictions.

But the towns and counties around Lake Norman have argued over who should police the lake and respond to emergencies. Long’s death may change how some agencies choose to respond.

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