The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released its annual report on firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) for 2017 at its annual conference and expo in June. The NFPA started keeping its LODD database in 1977, and this past year marked the lowest total of LODDs since it started keeping records more than 40 years ago!
Though progress has been slow, there has been continued progress. For the period of 1977 to 1991, the average number of LODDs was more than 120. For six of the past seven years, the number of LODDs has averaged fewer than 70. This is about a 50 percent decrease in the past 40 years.
A Variety of Factors
No one single initiative has led to this 50 percent decrease. It has been a combination of initiatives. Firefighters are more aware of their physical condition and are, generally, in better shape than in previous years. Incident management has evolved, with the incorporation of incident scene safety officers, to make the fire scene safer. We now have NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, as a standard to develop and maintain a program to look after the well-being of firefighters. Those of us with a bit of institutional knowledge recall that when NFPA 1500 was being developed, it was the standard that was going “to put fire departments out of business.” More than 30 years later, there is no knowledge of the standard putting a fire department out of business. The impact of the standard has been a 50 percent reduction in LODDs. That’s kept a lot of firefighters in business. Think about it: If we were still averaging more than 120 LODDs annually, during the past seven years (when the average has been fewer than 70) there would be another 350 or more firefighters NOT alive today.
Apparatus, equipment, and personal protective equipment have made steady improvements. For example, we did not have the advantage of thermal imaging cameras and PASS devices 40 years ago. We have transitioned to wearing hoods and turnout gear with breathable moisture barriers. Perhaps one of the biggest design changes was the requirement to have fully enclosed cabs—an NFPA requirement. Today, almost all open or canopy cab apparatus have been retired. The result: We hardly hear of a firefighter dying after falling off an apparatus. Yet, this happened at least a half-dozen times annually during the late 1970s and 1980s.
New Focus Area Emerges
What about the focus area mentioned in the title of this column? In 2017, 10 firefighters were struck by vehicles! This is more than double what the average has been and, by far, the highest number in the past 40 years. The NFPA did not elaborate on the cause for this high number, but I think we can all agree that it probably relates to distracted and impaired drivers. As a fire service, we need to make sure that 2017 becomes an outlier and not the start of a new norm.
The Emergency Responder Safety Institute has a wealth of knowledge about roadway scene safety on its Web site at www.respondersafety.com. All departments should dedicate some training time to learning more about what it offers and commit to making sure no firefighters are struck by vehicles. There is minimal cost in putting together preventive programs. Key elements of roadway safety include advance warning, blocking apparatus, visible apparatus, compliant fluorescent/reflective traffic vests, continued awareness, and public service announcements.
Preventive programs can be customized for each department. And, each department may find it necessary to have a different standard operating procedure (SOP) for each type of roadway. An interstate highway or similar multilane highway will likely have a different SOP than a two-lane road or residential street. For example, there could be a standard operating guideline that says all responses to an interstate highway require that a vehicle be solely dedicated to advance warning and/or blocking.
To put the 10 LODDs resulting from being struck by vehicles into perspective, consider that this was the second leading cause of death. The general public, and some firefighters, think that burns and structural collapse are the leading causes of firefighter LODDs. However, for 2017, there were only three firefighters who died from burns at structural fires and one because of a laceration. Of the 17 fireground deaths, nine occurred at structure fires and eight occurred at wildland fires. Cardiac arrest remained the leading cause of death. There were a couple of deaths that were outside the norm: falling from an aerial device.
Cancer and Suicide
Note that the NFPA annual report does not capture data on the number of firefighters who lose their lives from cancer or suicide. However, when the report was presented at the NFPA annual conference and expo, it was stressed that this is a major issue. The International Association of Fire Fighters has information that more than 120 of its members passed on from cancer. There are likely more, and there is no information about volunteer firefighters. The NFPA also received information that at least 91 firefighters and an additional 17 emergency medical technicians died of suicide (20 percent of these were retired).
The takeaway from this report is that the number of LODDs can be reduced and should be reduced further. Spend time focusing on roadway incident safety and continue to support current efforts to address firefighter cancer and suicide. The report can be found at www.nfpa.org.
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.).