NFPA recently released its annual “U.S. Firefighter Fatalities in the United States” report, which showed fewer than 50 U.S. firefighter fatalities while on duty in 2019, reflecting the lowest number of deaths reported since NFPA began conducting this study in 1977.
In addition, there were no multiple-fatality incidents, which also represents a first for the report. Other important achievements include the lowest number of deaths of volunteer firefighters, deaths in road vehicle crashes, and cardiac deaths.
This year’s findings reflect significant milestones for firefighters while on the job, with many of the numbers representing historic lows. While one year’s experience cannot be interpreted as evidence of a trend, and we know already that the U.S. firefighter death toll in 2020 will likely be higher as a result of COVID-19 and the fact that there have already been two multi-firefighter-fatality-fires this year, there are promising indications that real, sustained progress has been achieved in the reduction of deaths in some categories, such as cardiac deaths, structure fire deaths and vehicle crashes.
Overall, 48 firefighters died while on-duty in the U.S. in 2019, a sharp drop from recent years, where deaths averaged 65 per year. Of the 48 fatalities, 25 were volunteer firefighters, 20 were career firefighters, and one each was an employee of a state land management agency, an employee of a federal land management agency and a civilian employee of the military.
The 25 deaths of U.S. volunteer firefighters in 2019 is the lowest reported in all the years of this study and represents a sharp drop from the annual average for volunteer firefighters over the previous 10 years (36 deaths per year on average), and far lower than the average of 67 deaths per year in the earliest years of this study. The 20 deaths of career firefighters while on-duty in 2019 is the third time in the past four years that the total has been 20 or fewer. In the earliest years of this study, the annual average number of deaths of career firefighters while on duty was 57.
Overexertion, stress, and medical issues accounted for by far the largest share of firefighter deaths, as has been the case in past years. Of the 26 deaths in this category, 22 were classified as sudden cardiac deaths (usually heart attacks), two were due to strokes, one to heat stroke and one death was by suicide. The 22 sudden cardiac deaths while the victim was on-duty mark the fourth consecutive year that the toll has been below 30, but they still account for the largest share of on-duty deaths. Cardiac-related events accounted for 44 percent of the on-duty deaths over the past 10 years in the United States.
During 2019, four firefighters died in vehicle crashes, four were struck by vehicles and one fell from a moving vehicle. In the past, crashes of road vehicles consistently accounted for the second largest share of the on-duty deaths, but the number has dropped in recent years, with fewer than five deaths in three of the last 10 years. Deaths in road vehicle crashes, which accounted for three of the four crash deaths in 2019, have ranged over the years from a high of 25 to this year’s low of three.
It remains encouraging to see the overall number of on-duty firefighter fatalities continue to decline, but the full firefighter fatality picture is far broader than NFPA’s data, which focuses on on-duty deaths tied to specific events that occur while firefighters are at work. The hazards of firefighting also include long-term exposure to carcinogens and other contaminants, as well as physical and emotional stress and strain. Sadly, we have seen some troubling trends, such as firefighter-related murders. In 2019, a firefighter who was shot at an EMS call represents the ninth firefighter murdered on-duty in the past 10 years.
NFPA’s annual firefighter fatalities report only reflects deaths that occur while victims are on-the-job, either as the result of traumatic injuries or onset of acute medical conditions. Studies have also shown that years spent in the fire service can take a toll on a firefighter’s health, both physical and emotional, and can also result in exposures to toxins that may eventually result in job-related cancer, cardiac, and suicide deaths that are not represented in this report. A comprehensive study that enumerates all duty-related deaths in a year is not yet possible to accomplish.
For several years in the U.S. there has been a concerted effort to understand occupational exposure and the toll that cancer is taking in the fire service. More recently, focus has centered around firefighter suicide – for good reason. Reporting of firefighter suicides has been growing and deaths due to suicide are continuing to outpace line of duty deaths. For example, a news station in Nevada recently reported that one study found that 37 percent of fire and EMS professionals have contemplated suicide, nearly 10 times the rate of American adults. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance estimates about 40% of firefighter suicides are reported – making suicide more prevalent than other line of duty deaths. In the past year, Nevada has lost two firefighters to suicide – a sad reality that has prompted Northern Nevada emergency response agencies to revisit their mental health approach.
Historically, NFPA line of duty death statistics take into consideration incidents from the United States but as a global organization, NFPA is always interested in what it is happening in different corners of the world. So, I reached out to international colleagues and asked for their perspective. You see, my role at NFPA is to oversee the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association (Metro) which brings together fire service professionals from around the globe and serves as the conduit for addressing emerging issues for large-jurisdiction departments. This position allows me to work with great fire leaders in different countries who never cease to offer important insights.
For instance, Dr. Peter Wagner with the Berlin Fire Brigade shared that in Germany there are more than 1.3 million firefighters – around the same number there is in the United States. Like the U.S., approximately 75% of all firefighters in Germany are volunteers. In 2017, volunteer firefighters responded to more than 1.2 million calls with approximately 129,000 of them being fire-related and the remaining requiring technical assistance. Dr. Wagner reports that within the volunteer ranks, there were approximately 13,500 accidents and five deaths associated with firefighter operations. Germany does not have comprehensive accident statistics for professional or private fire brigades, but the ratio of injuries is significantly lower and fatalities in professional industrial fire departments are very rare.
Over in the United Kingdom, Chief Roy Wilsher, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) said that when considering the number of firefighter fatalities in the UK it is important to place the numbers in perspective. There are very few purely volunteer firefighters in the UK, some in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and one company in England. Most of the fire service in the UK is made up of wholetime career firefighters with all the occupational health and length of service commitments that come with that. The same systems and processes apply to the part-time (retained) firefighters who protect most of the rural parts of the country. Chief Wilsher said the UK is very fortunate that the last fire fatality at an incident was in Manchester in 2013. Regrettably though, one UK firefighter died during water rescue training in 2019 and there have been two on duty firefighter fatalities this year – one attributed to cardiac arrest and another due to a firefighter taking his own life at work. No COVID-related fatalities have been reported thus far.
The UK does not maintain a database of all firefighter deaths, just those that happen at incidents, so the NFCC may not have all the data. Chief Wilsher indicates that fire leaders there are looking to learn more about suicide, as of late, so that they can raise awareness and offer more support for an issue that so often affects firefighters. Additionally, UK fire officials are conducting research into cancer and cancer-related fatalities. To date, they have not found a direct causal link with firefighting but considering what they are learning from North America, occupational exposure is an extremely important area of work for everyone involved in the UK fire and rescue services.
In Australia, urban (career) firefighter deaths are generally very low. There was one cardiac arrest last year. Firefighters dying from registered (workplace accepted) cancers are recorded on the National Memorial, however, are not listed here. During the 2019-20 fire season, nine response personnel died on duty fighting Australia’s bushfires including two multiple-fatality incidents. This was the highest number in any year since 1983. The fatalities included:
- Two rural volunteer firefighters who died in New South Wales when a tree fell across a convoy of fire trucks causing a truck to roll and crash.
- A tree falling killed a further land management firefighter in Victoria.
- Another land management firefighter died in a vehicle accident returning from a fire in Victoria and a contractor died operating a bulldozer when it rolled in Victoria.
- A rural volunteer firefighter died when his fire truck was upended and landed on its roof during a freak wind event in the center of a fire, crushing the firefighter in New South Wales.
- Three aircrew were killed when a C130 airtanker crashed during firebombing operations in New South Wales.
Australia does not maintain a record of suicides by firefighters and this is not reflected on the national Memorial.
I would like to stress that the global perspective captured here is reflective of only three of the many countries that participate in Metro Chiefs; many other countries have their own challenges and have experienced loss.
NFPA’s Firefighter Fatalities study is made possible by the cooperation and assistance of the United States fire service, the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the United States Fire Administration, the Forest Service of the US Department of Agriculture, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Protecting the health and safety of firefighters around the world is made possible by engaged, invested and proactive policy makers, fire administrators and firefighters working every day to reduce harm to men and women on the frontline.
For more information, go to www.nfpa.org
The Firefighter Fatalities research content in this article was originally shared in a blog on NFPA Xchange by Rita Fahy, Applied Research Manager at NFPA.