BY ROBERT TUTTEROW
In 2019, the U.S. fire service reported the lowest number of line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) since records have been kept This is according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report released in July 2020 titled “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States—2019.”
The 48 deaths were “a sharp drop from the previous five years (2014 to 2018) when the deaths averaged 65 annually.” This continues an overall downward trend since the NFPA started tracking LODDs in 1977—42 years of data. The first 10 years of the reporting show an average annual LODD count of around 120. 2019 represents a 60% decrease from the late 1970s and the decade of the 1980s. Also, for the first time ever, there were no multiple fatality incidents. NOTE: These data do not include the 343 FDNY firefighter fatalities of the 2001 World Trade Center terrorist attack. And, they do not reflect the many FDNY members who have passed on from diseases caused by their on-scene exposure.
REASON TO CELEBRATE
The fire service should celebrate this trend. It indicates that safety measures and safety initiatives work. It would be awesome if this number could be reduced by another 60% in a much shorter time. Instead of 42 years, how about doing it during the decade of the 2020s? Getting the number to fewer than 20 on a consistent basis is a very achievable goal if the proper risk management measures are adopted and followed. Risk a lot to save a lot (known savable lives). Risk a little to save a little. Risk nothing to save nothing. An anecdotal review of LODDs will show an extremely high number of LODDs occur when there is nothing to save. It is rare that an LODD occurs when there is a known savable life.
Another interesting data point is a comparison of LODDs between volunteer and career firefighters. Salutations to the volunteer firefighters! In 2019, 25 volunteer firefighters made the ultimate sacrifice. This was the lowest number ever recorded! The earlier years of NFPA’s study show that an average of 67 volunteer firefighter LODDs occurred annually. Perhaps part of this downward trend is the dwindling number of volunteer firefighters. There were 20 career firefighter LODDs. This number represents the third time in the past four years that the number was 20 or fewer. In the earlier years of the study, the average number of career firefighter LODDs was 57.
Cardiac arrest continues to be the leading cause of LODDs, comprising 46% of the total. This is followed by “internal trauma/crushing” at 29%. The other categories are burns, stroke, asphyxia, and other. Once again, age plays a significant role in the number of LODDs. The age range was between 21 and 81, with the median age being 46.5 years. The death rate for those who were older than 60 was three times the average. Over the past five years, the report notes that half of the LODDs were firefighters who were 50 or older. Yet, the number of firefighters in this age group comprised 25% of all firefighters.
Despite the positive trends, there were three vehicle deaths that were likely preventable. They include the following:
- A firefighter responding to a vehicle crash in a fire department pickup truck rear-ended a logging truck. The firefighter, who was not wearing a seat belt, was trapped in the vehicle.
- A firefighter driving a tanker to a wildland fire overcorrected when the vehicle went onto the right shoulder. The firefighter was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected.
- A firefighter driving from one station to another in his personal vehicle was struck head-on by another vehicle attempting to pass. The firefighter was not wearing his seat belt and was ejected.
With the progress of reducing the “traditional” tracking of LODDs, there are two other areas claiming far more firefighter lives than the “traditional” method. Those two areas are cancer and suicide. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) is reporting “more than 130 deaths from cancer.” There are no data for volunteer firefighters or career firefighters who are not members of the IAFF. The total number of cancer-related firefighter deaths is only speculative, but it is not hard to surmise that there could be more than double the 130 reported by the IAFF. As for suicide, the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) states that “119 firefighters and 20 EMTs and paramedics” took their own lives.
Key takeaways: Get an annual medical examination as described by NFPA 1582, Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments; buckle up; practice contamination controls; seek help if you have behavioral issues or notice a fellow firefighter having behavioral issues; and risk nothing to save nothing.
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board. His 40-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).