Sudden cardiac death is a major threat to firefighters. It is imperative that firefighters rest, recover, and rehab after both training and working on the fireground. (Photo by author.)
According to the report “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States-2015” issued by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), in 2015, 68 firefighters died while on duty in the United States. Over the past 10 years, the annual average number of deaths is 81, and for the fourth time in the past five years, the total number of deaths has been below 70. Of the 68 firefighters who died while on duty, 32 were volunteer firefighters, 24 were career firefighters, six were federal land management agency employees, one was a state land management agency employee, one was a state prison inmate, and one was a civilian employee of the military.1
In 2015, three multiple fatality incidents occurred. An apparatus crash at a wildland fire claimed three wildland firefighters, a helicopter crash killed two contract firefighters at a prescribed burn, and two firefighters were killed when a wall collapsed at a structure fire. In addition, one firefighter was murdered when a motorist deliberately struck and killed him during a fundraiser, and another firefighter died from suicide while on duty.
The NFPA measures on-duty fatalities as any injury sustained in the line of duty that is fatal or becomes fatal, any illness as a result of on-duty actions that becomes fatal, and fatal accidents involving nonemergency occupational hazards taking place while on duty. Most often, injuries take place on an incident scene, in training, or while responding to or returning from alarms. The firefighters considered in the study are career and volunteer, state and federal including seasonal and full-time or contracted, firefighting prison inmate crews, military personnel, civilians working at military installations, and industrial fire brigades.
The NFPA report includes data from historical studies from 1977 to the present. Some of the key findings of this report include the following:
- In four of the past five years, the total number of deaths has been below 70. Historically, this number had been higher, closer to 100 per year. This demonstrates a notable reduction.
- A marked decrease in deaths among volunteer firefighters was noted, averaging half as many deaths in the past five years as the first decade of research.
- Road vehicle crashes are reduced in recent years, but it is too early to define the trend as statistically solid.
- A high percentage of cardiac deaths exist, accounting for more than half of the on-duty deaths.
It was noted that violence against firefighters is not as rare as broadly perceived, as 22 firefighters have been assaulted while on duty since 1996.
The trend of on-duty firefighter deaths has been steadily decreasing since 1977, with the exception of 2001’s World Trade Center deaths, which are considered to be a statistical outlier. At 1978’s peak, 174 firefighters died on duty, compared to 68 firefighters in 2015. This is a 61 percent reduction over 38 years.
Causes of Fatalities
By nature of injury, sudden cardiac death is the leading cause (51 percent). Internal trauma and crushing are second (24 percent), followed by asphyxiation (13 percent), stroke or aneurysm (six percent), burns (three percent), and other (three percent).
Firefighter death rates for sudden cardiac death showed a demonstrable increase in firefighters at higher ages, as evidenced by 22 deaths over the age of 51 compared to 13 deaths of firefighters between 20 and 50 years old.
Volunteer firefighters carried the largest share of on-duty deaths (32 total), although this number has been reduced in half since 1977. This is the second lowest total for volunteers, below the annual average of 42 deaths per year. The total of career firefighter deaths (24) continues a flat trend over the past decade, with the exception of an increase in 2007 because of a single nine-fatality incident in Charleston, South Carolina.
Strategies for Reduction
This ongoing research by the NFPA draws several conclusions that are valuable as we continue to attempt to reduce line-of-duty deaths in the fire service:
- Overexertion, stress, and strain continue to be leading causes of deaths.
- We continue to see a downward trend overall, indicating that efforts to improve safety are having some level of success.
- Cardiac deaths are a majority of the deaths (51 percent).
- Crashes are usually the second-highest share of deaths, although 2015 had the second lowest number of crash deaths in the past 39 years (six deaths in four crashes).
- Deaths because of long-term exposures are not yet estimated because of limitations in tracking the exposures and potential for long-term effects.
- Emotional health is emerging as a trend that should be considered as a part of fire service fatality problem analysis.
The NFPA also states that there are other organizations that report line-of-duty deaths using different definitions and criteria, including the United States Fire Administration and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. When reviewing reported deaths, it is important to consider the definitions for accurate comparison.
Author’s note: Find the full report at www.nfpa.org/news-and-research/fire-statistics-and-reports/fire-statistics/the-fire-service/fatalities-and-injuries/firefighter-fatalities-in-the-united-statessdtfydaewruqswcdrrfxvrccdeqvrxbrydw.
1. Fahy, R.F., LeBlanc, P.R., and Molis, J.L. “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States- 2015,” National Fire Protection Association, 2015.