Author(s): Hylton Haynes, Joseph Molis. Published on November 1, 2016.

U.S. firefighter injuries in 2015

Last year saw a sharp jump in the number of exposures to hazardous conditions, in part due to a heightened awareness about such risks and the need to document their occurrence

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.

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Based on data reported by fire departments responding to the 2015 National Fire Experience Survey, we estimate that 68,085 firefighter injuries occurred in the line of duty in 2015. This is an increase of 7.5 percent from the year before and the third lowest rate since NFPA began analyzing this data in 1981, the lowest rate occurring in 2014. 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 8,350 exposures to infectious diseases such as hepatitis, meningitis, and HIV in 2015. This amounts to 0.4 exposure per 1,000 emergency medical service runs by fire departments in 2015.

We also estimate there were 27,250 exposures to hazardous conditions such as asbestos, radioactive materials, chemicals, and fumes in 2015, which amounts to 25.2 exposures per 1,000 hazardous condition runs. This is a 47 percent increase from the year before, which can be explained in part by the heightened awareness about cancer and other chronic illnesses in the fire service and the importance of documentation. This is a large increase from previous years and could be a result of improved reporting for such exposures. An estimated 11,500 injuries, or 16.9 percent of all firefighter injuries, occurred away from the job.


FFInjuries

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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 their 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 in 2015 were hurt during fireground operations, where 29,130 injuries, or 42.8 percent of all firefighter injuries, occurred. This was an increase of 7.8 percent from the previous year, which was the lowest number since 1981. Injuries at the fireground decreased from a high of 67,500 in 1981 to 29,130 in 2015, a drop of 57 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 over the past 34 years has fluctuated 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. In 2015 the rate increased to 21.7 injuries per 1,000 fires. 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.

Firefighter stands in front of a destroyed building.

Two Missouri firefighters were injured and two were killed when a wall collapsed on them during a large fire involving a building containing businesses and apartments. Photograph: AP/Wide World

Overall, the number of injuries at non-fire emergencies increased 49.2 percent between 1981 and 2015, from 9,600 to 14,320. During that period, non-fire emergencies grew from 7.7 million to 32.2 million, an increase of 317 percent, due largely to growth in the number of fire department responses to medical emergencies. The injury rate per 1,000 non-fire emergencies declined between 1980 and 2015, from 1.24 to 0.44, because the number of non-fire emergencies increased at a higher rate than the number of injuries at non-fire emergencies.

In addition, 3,800 firefighter injuries occurred while responding to or returning from an incident in 2015. Another 7,560 firefighter injuries occurred during training activities, and 13,275 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 52.7 percent of the injuries; wounds, cuts, bleeding, and bruises, which account for 13.6 percent; burns, which account for 5.2 percent; and smoke or gas inhalation, which account for 4.4 percent. These results were fairly consistent during all non-fireground activities, with strains, sprains, and muscular pain accounting for 58 percent of all non-fireground injuries, and wounds, cuts, bleeding, and bruises accounting for 16 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 27.2 percent, and overexertion and strains, which accounted for 27.2 percent, were the leading causes of fireground injuries. Other major causes were being struck by an object, which accounted for 9 percent, and exposure to fire products, which was 8.2 percent.

Fire department vehicle collisions

In 2015, fire department emergency vehicles were involved in an estimated 16,600 collisions while responding to or returning from incidents. This is the highest number of collisions since NFPA began collecting this information in 1990. To put this number in perspective, fire departments responded to more than 33.6 million incidents in 2015, meaning that the number of collisions represents 0.05 percent of total responses. However, these collisions resulted in 1,150 injuries, or 1.7 percent, of all firefighter injuries.

Emergency responders assist injured responders after an ambulance and a fire truck collided.

Several responders were injured in a collision between an ambulance and a fire truck in Florida. Photograph: Walter Michot/The Miami Herald via AP

Another 700 collisions involved firefighters’ personal vehicles, in which they were responding to or returning from incidents. These collisions resulted in an estimated 50 injuries.

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 average number of fireground injuries, which range from a high of 103.2 for departments that protect communities of 1,000,000 or more to a low of 0.2 for departments that protect communities of 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 2015, the overall range of rates varied from a high of 2.3 injuries per 100 fires for departments that protected communities with populations ranging from 500,000 to 999,999 to a low of 1.2 injuries per 100 fires for departments that protected communities with populations 2,500 to 4,999. 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 1.9 injuries per 100 fires, which is 29 percent higher than the injury rate of 1.5 injuries per 100 fires for departments protecting communities under 50,000.

Larger fire departments generally had the highest rates of fireground injuries; departments protecting communities of 500,000 to 999,999 had experienced 5.1 injuries per 100 firefighters. As the size of the community decreases, the rate of fireground injuries declines steadily, to a low of 0.8 for departments protecting fewer than 2,500 people. That is a difference in risk of injury of more than a 6 to 1 between communities of 500,000 to 999,999 and communities of less than 2,500.

One explanation for this difference is that, although departments protecting communities with populations of 500,000 to 999,999 have, on average, more than 37 times as many firefighters as departments protecting populations smaller than 2,500, larger departments attend more than 200 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.

Two wildland firefighters watch as a house burns due to a forest fire.

Four firefighters were injured in a California wildfire. Photograph: Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP

In 2015, the northeast region of the United States reported the highest fireground injury rate in the country, at 2.1 fireground injuries per 100 fires. This observation is consistent with previous years, except in 2014, when the western region reported a higher rate for the first time.

As this data shows, firefighting presents risk of personal injury to firefighters; due to 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 as well as the impact of such injuries.

Acknowledgements

NFPA is grateful to the fire departments that responded to the 2015 National Fire Experience Survey for their continuing efforts to provide the data 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 Jay Petrillo for editing the survey forms and making follow-up calls to fire departments and Norma Candeloro for processing the survey forms.

HYLTON J.G. HAYNES is senior research analyst and JOSEPH L. MOLIS is a fire data assistant, both with the NFPA Research Division.