Each year at its Annual Conference & Expo, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) releases its annual Firefighter Fatality Study for line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) from the previous year.
According to the NFPA, 2018 sustained a trend of fewer than 70 annual LODDs, with 64 firefighters making the ultimate sacrifice. This trend has continued for the past five years. This is good news as it compares to previous trends since the NFPA started tracking firefighter deaths in 1977. For the period 1977 to 1991, the average number was around 120, with more than 150 in both 1977 and 1978. For the period 1992 to 2013, the average number was around 90. As of this writing, it appears 2019 will continue this trend and possibly be the lowest number on record. The safety initiatives are having a slow, but positive, impact. NOTE: The numbers reflected in these trends do not include the 343 Fire Department of New York fatalities at the World Trade Center attack in 2001. In addition, the numbers do not include cancer or suicide deaths.
Of the 64 LODDs, 34 were volunteer and 25 were career. The other five were from state or federal agencies. The 25 career deaths were slightly above the average of the past 10 years. The 34 volunteer LODDs are lower than the past 10 years and considerably lower than the almost 70 LODDs occurring during the early years of this study.
Despite public perception, the type of duty deaths continues to reflect that firefighters are more likely to die doing something other than operating on the fireground: 39 percent of LODDs occurred on the fireground—i.e., 61 percent did not occur on the fireground. This was followed by 20 percent classified as “other,” 17 percent during training, 16 percent during responding to/returning from an incident, and 8 percent nonfire emergency. There were 10 LODDs during wildland firefighting. Ten firefighters were killed in motor vehicle accidents, and all 10 were volunteers. Note that during the first 10 years of this study, the average number of firefighters killed in motor vehicle accidents averaged 36! One of the more bewildering numbers is the 11 LODDs that occurred during training. This should be an area of focus going forward. Three firefighters were killed by being struck on the scene by a vehicle, compared with 10 who lost their lives the previous year.
The median age of firefighter LODDs was 43.5. Not surprisingly, age is a factor in LODDs, as firefighters over the age of 60 who die on duty are almost three times the average. Over a five-year period, firefighters more than 50 years old account for slightly more than half the LODDs but comprise only 25 percent of the workforce.
One LODD is too many. But, the fact that there has been progress over a 42-year period is good, although the progress has been slow. In looking at a graph of the past 42 years, there are roughly three plateau periods. In the 1979 to 1991 period, there were 120 to 125 annual deaths. During the 1992 to 2010 period, there were around 100 annual deaths, and in the past eight years, the average is around 70. Let’s hope this is a short plateau with a steadily downward trend each year going forward.
Now, for some sobering numbers. The NFPA report does not include cancer or suicide deaths, and those numbers far exceed the “traditional” LODD numbers. According to the International Association of Fire Fighters data alone, there were 120 recorded firefighter cancer deaths for 2018. There are no data on the number of volunteer and non-IAFF members who died of cancer. It is a known fact that cancer rates among firefighters are higher than those of the general public, despite firefighters being more physically fit than the rest of the population. Considerable research and preventive measures are ongoing to reduce this number. You and your department must use every precaution to minimize exposure to contamination.
The number of firefighters committing suicide is also reaching epidemic proportions. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance says that 82 firefighters and 21 emergency medical technicians took their own lives in 2018 and that this number is likely to rise as more reports are validated. Many behavioral health programs are now available to firefighters; take advantage of them.
Finally, since most of these data are based on the annual NFPA LODD report, it is only appropriate to note that the NFPA has multiple standards addressing safety and health issues for firefighters. NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, lists ways to reduce the number of LODDs, injuries, and health issues. It also references many other standards to address specific areas. The price of compliance with NFPA standards is high, but I say the price of noncompliance is higher.
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.).