IN 2014, 64 FIREFIGHTERS in the United States died while on duty. This total represents a significant decrease from the 97 deaths that occurred in 2013, when three incidents claimed a total of 32 lives. By contrast, in 2014, the largest multiple-death incidents were two double-fatality fires, both in apartment buildings. The annual average number of firefighter deaths over the past decade is 83.
Of the 64 firefighters who died while on duty in 2014, 34 were volunteer firefighters, 23 were career firefighters, three were employees of state land management agencies, two were state contractors, one was a civilian employee of a military fire department, and one was a member of an industrial fire department.
The largest share of deaths, 22, occurred while firefighters were operating at fires. This is the second-lowest total number of fire ground deaths since this study began in 1977, and the third time in the last five years that the total has been below 25, accounting for about one-third of the on-duty deaths in 2014. There has been an average of 31 fire ground deaths over the past 10 years (2005 through 2014). The total in 2014 is sharply lower than in 2013 because of the two major loss-of-life incidents that occurred at fires that year: the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona that killed 19 wildland firefighters, and the fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer Company facility in West, Texas, that killed nine firefighters.
Eleven firefighters died in 2014 while responding to or returning from emergency calls. It is important to note that deaths in this category are not necessarily the result of vehicle crashes. While six deaths occurred in collisions or rollovers, the other five were due to sudden cardiac events. (All crashes and sudden cardiac deaths are discussed in greater detail later in this report.) Ten of the victims were volunteer firefighters and one was an employee of a state land management agency. The number of deaths that occurred while responding to or returning from calls has averaged 21 per year over the past 10 years and 15 per year over the past five years. The 11 deaths while responding to or returning from alarms in 2014 make up the second-lowest total since this study was first conducted in 1977.
Nine firefighters died at non-fire emergencies: five at medical emergencies, one while checking an automatic alarm activation, one at the scene of a partial building collapse, one during a missing person search, and one at a motor vehicle crash. Five of the nine suffered sudden cardiac deaths, two were struck by vehicles, one was struck by a collapsing cell phone tower, and one was trapped in a floor collapse.
Eight deaths occurred during training activities. Sudden cardiac death claimed seven firefighters: two during work capacity tests, one during air management training, one during the fire department’s annual physical ability test, one while returning from an off-site physical and agility test, one at the fire station for driver training, and one during wildland fire training. One firefighter died of influenza while he was attending training out of state.
The remaining 14 firefighters died while involved in a variety of non-emergency-related on-duty activities. Eleven of the deaths were due to sudden cardiac death. Eight of the 11 were engaged in normal administrative or station duties, one was involved in vehicle maintenance activities, one had been cutting down trees on department property, and one was clearing a blocked culvert to assist a member of the community. One was killed when his aircraft crashed while on patrol checking for wildland fires. One died when his vehicle crashed as he was returning from an unrelated service repair. One was electrocuted while assisting at an Ice Bucket Challenge event.
FIRE GROUND DEATHS
Except for 2001, when 340 firefighters died at the World Trade Center, and 2013, when an exceptionally high number of firefighters were killed at the Yarnell Hill and West Fertilizer fires, deaths on the fire ground have been declining fairly steadily since 1999. The 22 deaths in 2014 match the second-lowest total in a single year since NFPA began this study in 1977, and is the third time in the past five years that the total has been below 25. Seventeen of the deaths occurred at 15 structure fires. In addition, there were four deaths at four wildland fires and one at a vehicle fire.
The 17 deaths at structure fires included five deaths in three apartment building fires, nine in fires involving one- and two-family dwellings, and one death each in fires at a restaurant, an industrial facility, and a storage property. One of the dwellings was vacant at the time of the fire.
Both double-fatality fires that occurred in 2014 involved apartment buildings. In one of those fires, the two victims were caught in a rapid fire event and suffered fatal burns while operating a hoseline on the upper story of a two-story structure. In the other fire, the two victims were trapped in the basement and died of burns and smoke inhalation. One additional fire in an apartment building also killed a firefighter, who was trapped by rapid fire progress while searching for occupants in the high-rise building.
The remaining nine single-fatality residential fires involved one- or two-family dwellings. Four of the nine firefighters suffered sudden cardiac death at the fire scene: one during interior operations, one while pulling a supply line to a hydrant, one while waiting in his tanker to dump water at the scene, and one while picking up equipment at the scene after the fire. Three firefighters were lost inside during fire operations and died of smoke inhalation or asphyxiation. Two firefighters fell through floors into basements; one died of smoke inhalation, and the other of traumatic injuries.
In the remaining structure fire deaths, a firefighter suffered a fatal cardiac event while ventilating the roof of a restaurant, another suffered a fatal cardiac event at a fire in an industrial property, and the third firefighter was killed when the roof collapsed during a fire in a storage facility.
None of the structures in which firefighters died was reported to have had an automatic fire suppression system.
Among the non-structure fire deaths, four firefighters died at separate wildland fire incidents—sudden cardiac death claimed two lives, one firefighter was killed in an aircraft crash, and one firefighter fell and was fatally injured at a fire camp during a wildland fire. One firefighter was struck by a passing vehicle on a highway at the scene of a motor vehicle fire.
CAUSE AND NATURE OF FATAL INJURY OR ILLNESS
Overexertion, stress, and medical issues accounted for the largest share of deaths. Of the 37 deaths in this category, 35 were classified as sudden cardiac deaths (usually heart attacks), one was due to a stroke, and one to influenza.
The second-leading cause of fatal injury was vehicle crashes, which claimed nine lives. Another three firefighters were struck and killed by vehicles.
Five firefighters were caught or trapped by rapid fire progress (including flashover) in three incidents. All of these incidents were structure fires, including the two double-fatality incidents mentioned above.
Structural collapses resulted in two deaths. One firefighter was investigating a reported structural collapse at an apartment building when the walkway on the second story of the building collapsed beneath him. The other firefighter was killed when the roof collapsed at a structure fire.
In separate incidents, three firefighters became lost inside structures and died of smoke inhalation or asphyxiation.
Three firefighters died in fatal falls. In separate incidents, two firefighters fell through the floor and into the basement while on the fire ground (one during overhaul at a dwelling fire and the other while checking on an adjacent building after a fire). Both died of smoke inhalation. The third firefighter fell at a fire camp during a wildland fire and died of traumatic injuries.
As mentioned earlier, one firefighter was struck and killed by a collapsing cell phone tower.
SUDDEN CARDIAC DEATHS
In 2014, the 36 sudden cardiac deaths with onset while the victim was on-duty is the highest since 2008, and ends the general downward trend in on-duty sudden cardiac deaths that was observed over the past 10 years. Cardiac-related events accounted for 56 percent of the deaths in 2014.
The number of deaths in this category, however, has fallen significantly since the early years of this study. From 1977 through 1986, an average of 60 firefighters a year suffered sudden cardiac deaths while on duty (44.7 percent of the on-duty deaths during that period). These are cases where the onset of symptoms occurred while the victim was on-duty and death occurred immediately or shortly thereafter. The average number of deaths fell to 44 a year in the 1990s and to 34 in the past decade. In spite of this reduction, sudden cardiac death still accounted for 44 percent of the on-duty deaths in the last five years. Overall, sudden cardiac death is the number-one cause of on-duty firefighter fatalities in the U.S., and with two exceptions (1984 and 2013) has accounted for the single largest share of deaths in any given year.
Sudden cardiac death accounts for a higher proportion of the deaths among older firefighters, as might be expected. Two thirds of the firefighters over age 40 who died in 2014, and almost all of those over age 60, died of heart attacks or other cardiac events. It is interesting to note that two of the three deaths of firefighters in their late 20s were due to sudden cardiac events.
In 2014, 12 firefighters died in vehicle-related incidents, including nine firefighters who died in single-fatality vehicle crashes. Three other firefighters were struck and killed by vehicles.
Two of the vehicle crashes involved aircraft. One of these occurred during a routine fire patrol over a wildland area when the aircraft struck trees on a ridge line under a low cloud ceiling with reduced visibility. The other aircraft crash occurred during wildland fire operations when the aircraft, making its second fire retardant drop, possibly struck a tree with its wing. Visibility was good at the time, but there was smoke in the area. Both crashes are being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, but the final reports have not yet been released.
Five of the seven firefighters who died in road crashes were killed while responding to incidents, and one was killed while returning from an incident. Three were responding to structure fires, one to a grass fire, one to a motor vehicle crash, and another was returning from a structure fire.
In the final crash, a fire chief was returning a pumper that had just been serviced when the drive train failed and the pumper collided with a pickup truck on a highway. The chief and the five occupants of the pickup died in the fiery crash. The chief was wearing a seatbelt. Repairs that had recently been completed on the pumper were not related to the drive train failure.
Of the seven firefighters who died in road vehicle crashes, three were not using seatbelts (two were ejected or partially ejected and one was not), two were using seatbelts and were not ejected, and no details on seatbelt use were reported for two victims (one of whom was not ejected). Factors reported in the crashes included weather conditions and careless operation.
Three firefighters were struck and killed by vehicles. Two were operating on highways when they were struck: one at a motor vehicle crash and the other at a motor vehicle fire. The third was searching along railroad tracks for a missing person when he was struck by a train.
Two firefighters were killed at the scene of an intentionally set fire in an apartment building in 2014. From 2005 through 2014, 40 firefighters (five percent of all on-duty deaths) died in connection with intentionally set fires, either at the fire or while responding to or returning from the fire. The number of these deaths annually has dropped since 1985.
In 2014, one death resulted from a false call. Over the past 10 years, 14 firefighter deaths have resulted from false calls, including malicious false alarms and alarm malfunctions.
Overall, the firefighters who died in 2014 ranged in age from 21 to 84, with a median age of 52. Over the past five years, the lowest death rates were for firefighters under 40, whose death rate was about half to three-fifths of the all-age average. The rate for firefighters 60 and over was three times the average. Firefighters aged 50 and over accounted for half of all firefighter deaths over the five-year period, although they represent a quarter of all career and volunteer firefighters in the U.S.
The 34 deaths of volunteer firefighters while on-duty in 2014 was the second-lowest total for volunteers and well below the annual average of 44 deaths per year. It was the third time in the past five years that the total has been below 40 deaths. Overall, the number of deaths of volunteer firefighters while on duty has followed a general downward trend since 1999. The 23 deaths of career firefighters marks the fifth consecutive year that the total has been at or below 25. The trend for career firefighters has been relatively flat over the past 10 years, except for a spike in 2007 due to a single nine-fatality incident.
NFPA STANDARDS AND OTHER EFFORTS FOCUSED ON FIREFIGHTER HEALTH AND SAFETY
Given that the largest number of on-duty firefighter fatalities usually are due to sudden cardiac events, it is particularly important that NFPA provides several standards that focus on the health risks to firefighters. For example, NFPA 1582, Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments, outlines for fire departments the medical requirements that must be met by candidate firefighters and incumbent fire department members. NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, calls for fire departments to establish a firefighter health and fitness program that meets NFPA 1583, Health-Related Fitness Programs for Fire Fighters, and requires that firefighters meet the medical requirements of NFPA 1582.
Assistance is available to develop a fitness wellness program from the IAFC/IAFF Fire Service Joint Labor-Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative and the National Volunteer Fire Council’s Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program. The heart-healthy program was launched in 2003 to address heart attack prevention for firefighters and EMS personnel through fitness, nutrition, and health awareness.
Emotional health is important as well. Firefighter behavioral health is a topic that has garnered considerably more attention in recent years, particularly due to the efforts of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. The Alliance recently produced a report on behavioral health and suicide prevention that was published by the National Volunteer Fire Council, with support from USFA. NFPA 1500 requires access to a behavioral health program that provides assessment, counseling and treatment for such issues as stress, anxiety, and depression.
NFPA publishes several standards related to road and vehicle safety issues. These include NFPA 1002, Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, which identifies the minimum job performance requirements for firefighters who drive and operate fire apparatus in both emergency and nonemergency situations, and NFPA 1451, Fire and Emergency Services Vehicle Operations Training Program, which provides for the development of a written vehicle operations training program, including the organizational procedures for training, vehicle maintenance, and identifying equipment deficiencies. NFPA 1451 also covers training for those using privately owned vehicles. NFPA 1911, Inspection, Testing, Maintenance and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus, details a program to ensure that fire apparatus are serviced and maintained to keep them in safe operating condition.
NFPA 1901, Automotive Fire Apparatus, addresses vehicle stability to prevent rollovers and gives manufacturers options on how to provide it. NFPA 1906, Wildland Fire Apparatus, establishes minimum design, performance, and testing requirements for new vehicles over 10,001 pounds (4,500 kilograms) gross vehicle weight rating that are specifically designed for wildland fire suppression.
NFPA 1091, Traffic Control Incident Management, published this year, identifies the minimum job performance requirements necessary to perform temporary traffic control duties at emergency incidents on or near an active roadway.
The provisions of NFPA 1500 include requirements that operators successfully complete an approved driver-training program, possess a valid driver’s license for the class of vehicle, and operate the vehicle in compliance with applicable traffic laws. All vehicle occupants must be seated in approved riding positions and secured with seatbelts before drivers move the apparatus, and drivers must obey all traffic signals and signs and all laws and rules of the road. This includes coming to a complete stop when encountering red traffic lights, stop signs, stopped school buses with flashing warning lights, blind intersections, and other intersection hazards, as well as unguarded railroad grade crossings. Passengers are required to remain seated and must not release or loosen their seatbelts for any reason while the vehicle is in motion. It also includes a requirement that when members are authorized to respond to incidents or to fire stations in private vehicles, the fire department must establish specific rules, regulations, and procedures relating to the operation of private vehicles in an emergency mode.
Requirements also exist for emergency personnel operating on roadways. The 2009 version of the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) requires anyone working on a roadway to wear an ANSI 107-compliant high-visibility vest. An exemption was created for firefighters and others engaged on roadways that allows them to wear NFPA-compliant personal protective clothing (turn-out gear) when directly exposed to flames, heat, and hazardous material. NFPA 1500 requires firefighters working on traffic assignments where they are endangered by motor vehicle traffic to wear clothing with fluorescent and retroreflective material and use fire apparatus in a blocking position to protect firefighters.
The 2009 edition of NFPA 1901 requires that ANSI 207-compliant breakaway high-visibility vests be carried on all new fire apparatus, and MUTCD allows emergency responders to use them in lieu of ANSI 107-compliant apparel. Advice on compliance with the updated Federal rules can be found at Responder Safety website. NFPA 1901 also requires reflective striping for improved visibility on new apparatus and a reflective chevron on the rear of fire apparatus. Advice on improving the visibility of existing apparatus is also available at Responder Safety website. U.S. Fire Administration resources on emergency vehicle and roadway operations safety are available online.
There were 64 on-duty firefighter deaths in 2014. This is the third time in the past four years that the total has been below 65. (In 2013, there were 97 deaths, with 32 occurring in just three incidents.) From 1995 though 2008, the average number of on-duty deaths each year was in the low 100s. Since 2008, however, the average has dropped steadily and now stands at 83 deaths per year.
In spite of the sustained decline in on-duty fatalities over the past several years, sudden cardiac death continues to claim a major share of the on-duty deaths annually—more than half of the deaths in 2014, and the highest number since 2008.
Deaths in road vehicle crashes, often the second-most-frequent cause of on-duty firefighter fatalities, remained low in 2014. With seven fatalities in seven crashes, this is the second-lowest number of crashes and crash deaths over the past 30 years. Importantly, none of the deaths in 2014 involved privately owned
vehicles, the first time that has been the case since 1983.
This NFPA study focuses on the fire deaths that are directly associated with specific on-duty activities, and does not track the effects of long-term exposure to toxic products that might occur during an individual’s time in the fire service. To put the numbers in perspective, however, the International Association of Fire Fighters alone reported almost 100 firefighter cancer deaths in 2014, compared to the 64 on-duty fatalities reported here. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) undertook a multi-year study to examine the cancer risk of firefighters, using health records of approximately 30,000 current and retired career firefighters from three large city fire departments to look at mortality and cancer incidents. A followup study looked at exposure-response among 20,000 firefighters from the same fire departments. Results of the first phase were published in 2013, and results of the second phase were published this year.
The findings are available online.
PAUL R. LEBLANC is a fire data assistant at NFPA and a retired lieutenant with the Boston (Massachusetts) Fire Department. JOSEPH L. MOLIS is a fire data assistant at NFPA and a lieutenant with the Providence (Rhode Island) Fire Department.