By Rita F. Fahy, PhD., National Fire Protection Association
Each year since 1977, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has published a study detailing the on-duty firefighter fatality experience in the United States. In 2011, the U.S. fire service experienced the lowest number of on-duty deaths ever recorded – a total of 61 deaths among the more than 1 million men and women who serve in the career and volunteer fire services, as well as those who are responsible for fire suppression in their military, industrial, or government positions.
For more than a decade, the average number of deaths annually has held steady at about 100 deaths per year. 2011, however, marked the third consecutive year that the number of deaths dropped sharply and was, for the second year in a row, the lowest annual total since NFPA began conducting this annual study in 1977. With 82 deaths in 2009 and 73 deaths in 2010, the 10-year average has now dropped to 91. Of the 61 firefighters who died while on duty in 2011, 35 were volunteer firefighters, 21 were career firefighters, three were employees of state land management agencies, and two were employees of federal land management agencies.
There were several areas that accounted for the sharp drop in deaths in 2011, including:
Lowest number of sudden cardiac deaths
Lowest number of road vehicle crashes
No aircraft or watercraft crashes
Lowest number of deaths while involved in training activities since 1999
Lowest number of volunteer firefighter deaths ever
Lowest number of career firefighter deaths (tied with 1993)
Lowest number of deaths while responding to or returning from alarms
The 35 deaths of volunteer firefighters in 2011 is the lowest number reported in this study, and maintains the general downward trend seen since 1999. In collaboration with other fire service organizations, the National Volunteer Fire Council has undertaken various initiatives to address the fatality problem in the volunteer fire service. It is important to note the patterns of fatal injuries for volunteer firefighters, and to see how those initiatives address the particular challenges of the volunteer service.
Summary of Volunteer Firefighter Fatality Experience in 2011
The volunteer firefighters who died in 2011 ranged in age from 18 to 82, with a median age of 45. They included one woman and 34 men. Three of the victims were chief officers, eight were company officers, and the other 24 held the rank of firefighter. Twelve of the victims had served for five years or less. Overall, half had served for 15 years or less.
The largest share of firefighters were operating at fires when they were fatally injured. Six of the 13 fire ground deaths were due to sudden cardiac death, five to traumatic injuries, and two to burns. Ten were operating at structure fires, two at wildland fires, and one at an outside fire involving railroad ties.
The next largest share were responding to or returning from emergencies. These 10 deaths included five resulting from sudden cardiac death, four in crashes (three involving personal vehicles and one in a brush truck), and one fall on ice.
Five firefighters were operating at non-fire emergencies. Two of the five were struck by vehicles while directing traffic at the scene of motor vehicle crashes, two suffered sudden cardiac death at emergency calls, and one drowned in a water rescue.
Three volunteer firefighters died during or at training activities. Two of them suffered sudden cardiac death – one during SCBA training and the other while coordinating a live burn. The third firefighter fell while climbing a rope after a ropes skills class.
Sudden cardiac death claimed the lives of two firefighters while engaged in normal administrative duties, and another while clearing debris from roadway after a storm. One firefighter fell from a step ladder while removing a sign from a wall.
Major Trends in On-Duty Deaths of Volunteer Firefighters
Over the past 10 years (from 2002 through 2011), the two major causes of on-duty volunteer firefighter deaths have accounted for more than two-thirds of the deaths:
Sudden cardiac deaths (252 of 509 deaths) – 49.5%
Crashes (97 of 509) – 19.1% (or 37.7% of the non-cardiac deaths)
Although the number of on-duty sudden cardiac deaths, and the proportion of on-duty volunteer firefighter deaths that are due to sudden cardiac death, have been declining since the early 1990s, this cause still accounts for approximately 50 percent of the deaths annually. Recognizing that this is an important area on which to focus attention, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) launched their Heart-Healthy Firefighter program back in 2003. This remains the only program for the volunteer and career fire service that is focused solely on the prevention of sudden cardiac deaths. [ref http://www.healthy-firefighter.org/about-the-heart-healthy-firefighter-program] Although it is impossible to determine the effectiveness of any given program in preventing fatalities, the fact remains that more than 16,000 firefighters, volunteer and career, have been screened at national and local fire service trade shows for blood pressure, cholesterol, body fat, and glucose. The results of the testing have been disturbing, showing high rates of obesity and hypertension, but reportedly many firefighters have been having their numbers checked annually, showing a strong interest in improving or maintaining their health.
Unlike the trend for sudden cardiac deaths, the downward trend in crash deaths is less obvious, although there has been a slight decline when looking at rolling 10-year averages since the early 1990s. In two of the past three years, the number of crash deaths was half the 10-year average, but there’s still a great deal of fluctuation from year to year.
Half of the crash deaths in the past 10 years involved personally-owned vehicles. Water tenders (tankers) and pumpers accounted for another third of the crashes. In the 70 road vehicle crashes for which seat belt information was reported, more than three-quarters of the victims were not wearing a seat belt.
The NVFC has been a supporter of the National Fire Service Seatbelt Pledge since its inception in 2006. The pledge has been signed by more than 150,000 firefighters who have promised to wear their seatbelts. Building on this program, the NVFC recently launched the STOP vehicle safety campaign to further focus on reducing the deaths and injuries resulting from crashes during fire department responses. Again, it isn’t possible to determine how many lives this increased awareness in driver safety may have saved, but it is a positive step in addressing the second leading cause of on-duty firefighter deaths.
In 2011, there were only four deaths of volunteer firefighters in crashes. All four were responding to emergency calls; three were driving their personal vehicles. Two of the four were wearing their seatbelts. One was not wearing a seatbelt and details from the fourth crash were not available.
Since NFPA began doing an annual study of on-duty firefighter deaths in 1977, the total number of on-duty firefighter fatalities has dropped by almost 42 percent (comparing the earliest five years to the most recent five years). The decrease for volunteer firefighters has been slightly lower at 37 percent. Sudden cardiac deaths among volunteer firefighters on-duty have dropped 38 percent. The programs that NVFC has sponsored are targeting the major problems for the volunteer fire service, in terms of on-duty fatalities.
We have seen already that some of the good news in the 2011 experience will not be repeated in 2012. There have already been more deaths in crashes, including aircraft crashes, than occurred in 2011. But the programs that NVFC has sponsored are targeting two major problem areas that account for the majority of on-duty deaths in the volunteer fire service. Continuing these efforts should build on the successes that we’ve observed in the past few years.
*Note, this article expands on information and statistics reported by the NFPA.