Published on November 2, 2015.

U.S. Firefighter Injuries in 2014

An estimated 63,350 firefighter injuries occurred in the line of duty last year, the fewest since NFPA began analyzing this data in 1981. BY HYLTON J.G. HAYNES AND JOSEPH L. MOLIS

FIREFIGHTERS WORK IN VARIED AND COMPLEX environments that increase their risk of on-the-job death and injury. NFPA studies firefighter deaths and injuries every year to provide national statistics on their frequency, extent, and characteristics. A better understanding of how these injuries occur can help identify corrective actions that could help minimize the job’s inherent risks.

Based on data reported by fire departments responding to the 2014 National Fire Experience Survey, we estimate that 63,350 firefighter injuries occurred in the line of duty in 2014. This is a decrease of 3.8 percent from the year before, and the lowest rate since NFPA began analyzing this data in 1981. In recent years, the number of firefighter injuries has been considerably lower than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, due in part to additional survey questions on exposures to hazardous conditions and infectious diseases, information that allows us to place them in their own categories. Previously, some of these exposures might have been included in total injuries under other categories.

NFPA estimates that there were 7,700 exposures to infectious diseases such as hepatitis, meningitis, and HIV in 2014. This amounts to 0.4 exposures per 1,000 emergency medical service runs by fire departments in 2014.

We also estimate there were 18,500 exposures to hazardous conditions such as asbestos, radioactive materials, chemicals, and fumes last year, which amounts to 18.2 exposures per 1,000 hazardous condition runs. An estimated 10,700 injuries, or 16.9 percent of all firefighter injuries, resulted away from the job.

INJURIES BY TYPE OF DUTY

The type of duty firefighters were performing when injured is divided into five categories: responding to or returning from incidents, including fires and non-fire emergencies; fireground activities at structure fires, vehicle fires, and brush fires, from the moment firefighters arrive at the scene until they departure; non-fire emergency, including rescue calls, hazardous calls, and natural disasters; training; and other on-duty activities such as inspections and maintenance duties.

Most of the firefighters injured last year were hurt during fireground operations, where 27,015, or 42.6 percent, of all firefighter injuries occurred. This was a decrease of 10.2 percent from the previous year, the lowest number since 1981. Injuries at the fireground decreased from a high of 67,500 in 1981 to 27,015 in 2014, a drop of 60 percent. The number of fires also declined steadily, for an overall decrease of 55.1 percent, and the rate of injuries per 1,000 fires has fluctuated over the past 34 years between a high of 28.3 injuries per 1,000 fires in 1990 and a low of 20.8 injuries per 1,000 fires in 2014. These results suggest that, even though the number of fires and fireground injuries declined during the period, the injury rate did not, meaning the fireground injury rate per fire risk has not changed much since 1981.

An injured firefighter is attended to at a nine-alarm fire that occurred in Massachusetts.

An injured firefighter is attended to at a nine-alarm fire that occurred in Massachusetts. Photograph: AP/Wide World

Overall, the number of injuries at non-fire emergencies increased 34.2 percent between 1981 and 2014, from 9,600 to 14,595. During the same period, the number of non-fire emergencies also increased 292.5 percent, due in large part to an increase in the number of fire department responses to medical emergencies. The injury rate per 1,000 non-fire emergencies declined between 1980 and 2014, from 1.24 to 0.48, because the number of non-fire emergencies increased at a higher rate than the number of injuries at non-fire emergencies. In addition, 4,165 firefighter injuries occurred while responding to, or returning from, an incident in 2014. Another 6,880 firefighter injuries occurred during training activities, and 10,695 injuries occurred during other on-duty activities.

NATURE AND CAUSES OF FIREGROUND INJURIES

The major types of injuries that occurred during fireground operations were strains and sprains, which account for 52.6 percent of the injuries; wounds, cuts, bleeding, and bruises, which account for 13.6 percent; smoke or gas inhalation, which account for 3.1 percent; and burns, which account for 1.6 percent. These results were fairly consistent during all non-fireground activities, with strains, sprains, and muscular pain accounting for 57.3 percent of all non-fireground injuries, and wounds, cuts, bleeding, and bruises accounting for 16.6 percent.

Because fireground injuries are of particular concern from an occupational hazard perspective, we examined their causes, defined here as the initial circumstance leading to the injury. Falls, jumps, and slips, which accounted for 28.7 percent, and overexertion and strains, which accounted for 25 percent, were the leading causes of fireground injuries. Other major causes were coming into contact with objects, which accounted for 10.9 percent, and exposure to fire products, which accounted for 9.5 percent.

FIRE DEPARTMENT VEHICLE COLLISIONS

In 2014, an estimated 14,910 collisions involved fire department emergency vehicles responding to or returning from incidents. To put this number in perspective, fire departments responded to more than 31.6 million incidents in 2014, meaning that the number of collisions represents 0.05 percent of total responses.

However, these collisions resulted in 550, or 0.9 percent, of all firefighter injuries.

Another 620 collisions involved firefighters’ personal vehicles, in which they were responding to or returning from incidents. These collisions resulted in an estimated 90 injuries.

Firefighters and other officials in California work the scene of an accident where two fire trucks answering a call collided en route to a fire.

​Firefighters and other officials in California work the scene of an accident where two fire trucks answering a call collided en route to a fire. Photograph: AP/Wide World

AVERAGE FIRES AND FIREGROUND INJURIES PER DEPARTMENT BY POPULATION PROTECTED

The number of fires a fire department responds to is directly related to the population protected, and the number of fireground injuries incurred by a department is directly related to the number of fires the department attends. The second point is clearly demonstrated when we examine the range of the statistics, which range from a high of 104.9 for departments that protect communities of 1,000,000 or more to a low of 0.1 for departments that protect fewer than 2,500 people.

One way to understand the risk that firefighters face is to examine the number of fireground injuries that occur for every 100 fires they attend. This takes into account relative fire experience and allows more direct comparison between departments protecting communities of different sizes. In 2014, the overall range of rates varied from a high of 4.5 for departments that protected communities with populations ranging from 250,000 to 499,999 to a low of 0.9 for departments that protected communities with populations of 2,500 or less. The wide range in the average number of fireground injuries by population protected narrows when relative fire experience is taken into account. The overall injury rate for departments that protect communities of 50,000 or more was 2.4 injuries per 100 fires, which is 43 percent higher than the injury rate for departments protecting communities under 50,000.

Larger fire departments generally had the highest rates of fireground injuries; departments protecting communities of 250,000 to 499,999 had experienced 10.1 injuries per 100 firefighters. As the size of the community decreases, the rate of fireground injuries declines steadily, to a low of 0.5 for departments protecting fewer than 2,500 people. That is a difference in risk of injury of more than 20 to 1 between communities of 250,000 to 499,999 and communities of less than 2,500.

One explanation for this difference is that, although departments protecting communities with populations of 250,000 to 499,999 have, on average, more than 24 times as many firefighters as departments protecting populations smaller than 2,500, larger departments attend more than 86 times as many fires as the smaller departments and incur considerably more fireground injuries. Different policies for documenting minor injuries and different levels of fire engagement could also explain some of this difference.

Firefighters attend to an injured colleague while battling an apartment fire in Indiana.

Firefighters attend to an injured colleague while battling an apartment fire in Indiana. Photograph: AP/Wide World

In 2014, fire departments in the western United States reported a higher number of fireground injuries per 100 fires. Historically, the Northeast has reported a higher number of fireground injuries per 100 fires. This statistic may warrant further investigation if it becomes a trend into the future.

As these statistics attest, firefighting presents risk of personal injury to firefighters, and because of the kind of work they perform and the fire scene hazards they face, it is unlikely that all firefighter injuries can be eliminated. However, a risk management system and the application of existing technology at the local level can offer options to reduce current injury levels and the impact of such injuries.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

NFPA is grateful to the many fire departments that responded to the 2014 National Fire Experience Survey for their continuing efforts to provide the data necessary to make national projections. The authors would also like to thank the members of NFPA staff who worked on this year’s survey, including Frank Deely, Justin Cronin, and Al Scott for editing the survey forms and making follow-up calls to fire departments, and Norma Candeloro, Helen Columbo, and Emily Daly for processing the survey forms. The authors would like to recognize the contributions over the past several years of John “Jack” Conlon, who passed away during the earliest stages of this year’s project. He will be missed.

HYLTON J.G. HAYNES is senior research analyst and JOSEPH L. MOLIS is a fire data assistant, both with the NFPA Fire Analysis and Research Division. Top Photograph: AP Wide World