2015 Firefighter Fatalities: A Mixed Bag

By Robert Tutterow

This past June, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released its annual report on firefighter fatalities for 2015.

The numbers indicate some positive trends as well as some disturbing trends. The report shows that 68 firefighters died in the line of duty. [Note: Other fire service agencies also keep line-of-duty death (LODD) statistics and they may or may not be the same as the NFPA report. The NFPA report does not include the deaths at the World Trade Center in 2001.]

The NFPA defines being on duty as (1) being on the scene of an alarm, including nonfire incidents and EMS calls; (2) responding to or returning from a call; (3) participation in fire department activities such as training, fire inspections, fire investigation, public education, maintenance, fund raising, and court testimony; and (4) being on standby or on call for assignment at a location other than the firefighter’s place of business or residence.

A Quick Glance

According to the NFPA, 32 of the deaths were volunteer firefighters, 24 were career, three were federal contractors, one was employed by a state land management agency, one was an inmate, and one was a military civilian employee. The age range was 18 to 92, with a median age of 49.5 years. There were three incidents where there were multiple fatalities. An apparatus crash of a wildland vehicle killed three firefighters, a helicopter crash killed two contract firefighters, and a wall collapse at a structure fire claimed the lives of two firefighters.

The Positive News

The number of firefighter deaths is not going up. For four out of the past five years, the number of deaths has been less than 70. The NFPA started tracking LODDs in 1977. From 1977 through 1991, a period of 15 years, there were at least 100 deaths each year. In 1978, there were 174 deaths. For the past 10 years, the average is 81. Clearly, the data indicate improvement over the past 40 years. From the “30,000-foot level,” there was a downward trend from 1977 to 1992. For the first time in 1992, the number was less than 100. Deaths spiked back up in 1994 and remained relatively steady at about 100 per year until 2009. With the exception of 2013, the numbers are averaging in the mid to high 60s. In 2013, there were 97 LODDs, which included two incidents where 28 firefighters lost their lives.

The positive news is related to increased awareness and education by many fire service agencies (especially the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation) and adherence to nationally recognized NFPA standards.

Vehicle-Related Lodds

There were 13 vehicle-related fatalities. As mentioned earlier, a wildland engine rolled down an embankment and killed three firefighters and a helicopter crash claimed two lives. Two ambulance crashes claimed one life each, and another firefighter was killed in a fire department pickup truck crash. Five firefighters were killed when they were struck and killed by a vehicle, including one that was intentional. Fortunately, there were no tanker rollovers or speed-related deaths involving fire department vehicles.

Cardiac Deaths

As usual, cardiac events were the leading cause of firefighter deaths in 2015, with 35 deaths consisting of 51 percent of the total number. Although this continues to be the leading cause, the numbers are down significantly from 40 years ago. During the first 10 years (1977 to 1986) since the NFPA started this ongoing study, the average number of cardiac-related deaths was 60. In the past 10 years, the average number is 34.

On-Scene LODDs

There were 24 fireground fatalities, with seven of those being cardiac events. Two of the fatalities were the result of burns and seven were attributed to internal trauma. Single- and two-family residences claimed 10 firefighters, apartments claimed two, vacant warehouses claimed two, a nail salon claimed two, and one firefighter died at a large commercial building.

The Negative News

The NFPA report appropriately addresses the long-term effects on firefighters’ overall emotional and physical health. As of now, there is no reporting mechanism to accurately track the number of firefighters who eventually die from suicide and cancer. The report notes that according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA), 94 firefighters and 23 EMTs and paramedics died by suicide in 2015! That is cause for alarm; 117 deaths from suicide far exceeds cardiac deaths, on-scene deaths, and responding/returning deaths. The report notes that about 20 percent of the deaths were retirees. Nonetheless, the numbers are probably much higher because so many go unreported.

Cancer is the other killer that is not included in the NFPA LODD report. Again, this number is unknown but way too high. It is known that firefighters are three times more likely to get cancer than the general population. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) reports that 80 cancer deaths were reported to the IAFF in 2015. And, it knows that there were deaths that were not reported. What are the numbers for volunteer firefighters and nonIAFF career firefighters? No doubt, they easily exceed the 80 known deaths by the IAFF.

Final Thoughts

Efforts to drive the downward trend in LODDs should continue. We have an opportunity to reduce the numbers even further by using science-based firefighting procedures. Regrettably, at the time of this writing, the numbers for 2016 are not trending in the right direction.

Efforts to reduce suicides and firefighter cancer are increasing. Awareness campaigns must transition to preventive actions. Failing to do so is inexcusable, as these are issues that can be addressed without major capital expenditures.

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 34-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.).

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