Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 2008
For the second year in a row, 103 firefighters died while on duty.
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2009
By Rita F. Fahy, Paul R. LeBlanc, and Joseph L. Molis
Download the full 2008 Firefighter Fatalities Report (PDF, 151 KB)
At 3:53 p.m. on April 8, 2008, a 24-year-old deputy fire chief directing operations at a fire at a plastics manufacturing facility died when he was struck by a motorized water monitor. The monitor, which had been attached to a section of an aerial ladder that had been raised 67 feet (20 meters), was launched from the ladder when the waterway was pressurized, flying 75 feet (23 meters) before it hit the deputy chief. With its mounting bracket and 30 feet (9 meters) of aluminum pipe, the monitor weighed more than 200 pounds (91 kilograms).
2008 Firefighter Fatalities Incidents
A selection of incidents from the full Firefighter Fatality Report.
Podcast: NFPA's Rita Fahy answers questions about firefighter fatalities
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RELATED NFPA CODES/STANDARDS
NFPA 1582: Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments, 2007 Edition
NFPA 1583: Standard on Health-Related Fitness Programs for Fire Department Members, 2008 Edition
NFPA 1500: Fire Dept Occupational Safety and Health Program, 2007 Edition
NFPA 1451: Standard for a Fire Service Vehicle Operations Training Program, 2007 Edition
NFPA 1911: Standard for the Inspection, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus, 2007 Edition
NFPA 1901: Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, 2009 Edition
NFPA 1002: Standard for Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, 2009 Edition
The deputy chief was one of 103 U.S. firefighters who died on duty in 2008. He was also among the 58 volunteer firefighters who died while on duty.
In 2008, the largest share of firefighter deaths occurred while responding to, or returning from,
emergency calls, with 39 fatalities. This figure includes nine who perished in a helicopter crash. Among those 39, 12 died of sudden cardiac events or stroke, and one died when he was pinned between a tanker and a bay door when a pickup truck crashed into the door.
The deputy chief was also among 29 firefighters who died on the fireground.
Eleven firefighters died at nonfire emergencies, including nine who died at the scene of motor vehicle crashes, one who died during a tornado watch, and one who died searching for a drowning victim.
Seven died during training activities. Two were recruits who collapsed after maze drills, one was a new volunteer firefighter who died of heat stroke after a day at a training academy, one collapsed after a training drill, one crashed during a tanker drill, one was shot during a break at an off-site training program, and one died while on his way to a training session.
Additionally, 17 firefighters died while involved in non-emergency-related on-duty activities. Fourteen of those died during normal administrative or station duties, one died while attending an outside meeting on fire protection at an industrial site, one died during a paid detail at a demolition site, and one died during road maintenance in a wildland area.
The death rate for firefighters 60 and over was almost four times the all-age average. While firefighters aged 50 and over accounted for two-fifths of all firefighter deaths, they represent fewer than one-fifth of all firefighters. The lowest death rates over the past five years were for firefighters in their 20s. In 2008, the victims ranged in age from 17 to 82, with a median age of 43 years. Nine were over 70.
Last year was the second year in a row during which 103 firefighters died on duty. In fact, 2008 was the fourth year in the last 10 during which 103 firefighters died. The average number of deaths annually over the past 10 years is 101.
Overexertion, stress, and related medical issues
Sudden cardiac deaths killed 36 firefighters in 2008. Among them was a 48-year-old trainee who collapsed following a maze drill at a state fire academy. He died later that day. The autopsy showed that he had an enlarged heart and severe atherosclerotic and hypertensive cardiovascular disease.
In 2008, the leading cause of death was trauma. Typically, though, sudden cardiac death is the number-one cause of death for on-duty firefighters in the United States and almost always accounts for the largest share of deaths each year. As with the 48-year-old who collapsed following the maze drill, these are cases in which the onset of symptoms occurred while the victim was on duty and death occurred immediately or shortly thereafter. Despite the fact that the number of deaths in this category has fallen significantly since 1977, from an average of 60 from 1977 to 1986 to fewer than 40 over the past four years, sudden cardiac death still accounts for close to 40 percent of the on-duty deaths annually.
As might be expected, sudden cardiac death accounts for a higher proportion of the deaths among older firefighters. More than half of the firefighters over age 40 who died in 2008 died of heart attacks or other cardiac events. The youngest victim of sudden cardiac death was aged 24 and had severe atherosclerosis. In fact, postmortem medical documentation showed that 14 of the 36 victims of sudden cardiac events had severe arteriosclerotic heart disease, 12 were hypertensive, and three had previous heart problems, such as heart attacks, bypass surgery, or angioplasty or stent placement. Some of the victims had more than one condition.
This study would not be possible without the cooperation and assistance of the United States fire service, the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Program of the Department of Justice, CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the United States Fire Administration, and all federal and state land management agencies.
For information on PSOB death, disability, and educational benefits to survivors, visit www.ojp.gov/BJA/grant/psob/psob_main.html.
Fireground fatalities trend
Last year saw the second-lowest number of fireground fatalities since NFPA started this study in 1977, and it was the fourth year in the past six in which the total was 30 or fewer.
Of the 29 firefighters who died on the fireground, 21 died at structure fires, seven were killed on wildland fires, and one was killed by a sniper in a nearby house during operations at a vehicle fire. Thirteen of the 29 deaths occurred at fires in residential properties, 12 in one- and two-family homes, and one in an apartment building. Three firefighters died in manufacturing properties, one of which had an automatic suppression system that activated on two levels after the fire started on a loading dock and permitted only minimal extension to the interior. Two firefighters were killed in fires in stores, and two died in vacant houses. Another firefighter was killed at an early-morning fire at a vocational school.
Over the years, vehicle crashes have accounted for the second-largest share of on-duty firefighter deaths, and 2008 was no exception.
On November 7, for example, a 17-year-old firefighter responding to a structure fire at 1 a.m. in his own vehicle went off the right side of the road after entering a curve, then overcorrected, crossing the roadway and going off the left side of the road and down an embankment. The vehicle flipped several times on the way down before crashing into an electric power box. The driver, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from the vehicle and died at the scene.
He was one of 29 firefighters who died in 18 vehicle crashes last year, and one of seven who died in crashes involving their own vehicles. Fourteen firefighters died in four aircraft crashes. Crashes involving pumpers or water tenders/tankers resulted in five deaths, crashes in a wildland fire apparatus killed two, and an ambulance crash killed one. Twelve of the crashes, which killed 15 firefighters, occurred while they were responding to emergencies, and three crashes, which killed 11 firefighters, occurred while they were returning from emergencies. Another three vehicle crashes occurred while firefighters were engaged in other emergency activities.
Of the 15 firefighters who died in road vehicles, 10 were not wearing seatbelts. Five, including the 17-year-old, were ejected from the vehicles, and three were partially ejected. Three wore seatbelts; no information on seatbelt use was available for one crash. One crash involved a motorcycle.
Excessive speed was a factor in at least six of the 14 crashes, one of which resulted in two deaths. Two of the drivers were intoxicated. Other reported factors were driver inexperience, driver inattention, weather conditions, and the age of vehicle.
Other factors in fatal injuries
Four firefighters were also struck by motor vehicles. Another was struck by a collapsing parapet wall, one was hit by a door and a power saw when an explosion occurred as he tried to gain access to a fire in a locked room in an electrical switching station, and one was struck by a tornado. Another was the deputy chief who was struck by the water monitor that broke off an aerial ladder, and another was hit by a falling tree.
Fatal injury as a result of being caught or trapped resulted in 13 deaths. Six of the 13 firefighters were trapped by fire in five fires; four of them were fatally burned, and two were asphyxiated. Another two were caught in structural collapses, and two more became lost inside fire-involved structures;
one of them died when he ran out of air, and the other was fatally burned. Of the remaining three firefighters, one died in an explosion at a fire station, one was pinned between an elevating platform and the control panel as the platform was being lowered, and the third was pinned between a tanker and the bay door when the door was struck by another vehicle.
Six firefighters were killed in jumps or falls. Three fell through floors at structure fires, one fell down a cliff while working on a wildland fire, one fell from a ladder at the fire station, and one jumped from a road grader when its brakes failed and it started to roll backwards. Another firefighter was electrocuted at a structure fire when he came into contact with a high-voltage power line while on a moving elevating platform, and one died of heat stroke at a training academy.
Three firefighters were shot to death, one during a meal break at an off-site training session, one by a sniper at a vehicle fire, and one by a car thief who crashed the vehicle and mistook the firefighter for a police officer. The three victims were among 32 firefighters murdered during the 32 years NFPA has reported on on-duty firefighter fatalities. However, this is only the second time that there have been three separate incidents in a single year. There does not appear to be a pattern in these murders.
Fifty-eight of the firefighters who died last year were volunteer firefighters, and 27 were career firefighters. Twelve were contractors with federal land management agencies, three were employees of federal land management agencies, one was an employee of a state land management agency, one was a member of a reservation-based wildland firefighting crew, and one supervised an inmate fire crew.
Four died in connection with fires that were intentionally set. One died in a roof collapse, one was the victim of the shooting mentioned above, and two died of sudden cardiac arrest, one while overhauling a structure fire and the other while responding to a vehicle fire. From 1999 through 2008, 61 firefighters died in connection with inten
tionally set fires; this is 6.1 percent of all on-duty deaths. The number of these deaths has fallen annually since 1985, in part because of the decline in intentionally set fires over the same period.
Over the past 10 years, 34 firefighters have died as a result of false calls, including malicious false alarms and alarm malfunctions. In 2008, one firefighter died of sudden cardiac death shortly after returning from a false alarm at a shopping mall.
The standards and firefighter safety
NFPA has several standards that focus on the health risks to firefighters. For example, NFPA 1582, Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments, outlines the procedures for screening candidate firefighters and handling health problems that might arise during an individual’s fire service career. NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, calls for fire departments to establish a firefighter health and fitness program based on NFPA 1583, Health-Related Fitness Programs for Fire Fighters, and requires that firefighters meet the medical requirements of NFPA 1582.
NFPA also publishes several standards related to road safety. NFPA 1002, Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, identifies minimum job performance requirements for firefighters who drive and operate fire apparatus, in both emergency and nonemergency situations. NFPA 1451, Fire Service Vehicle Operations Training Program, provides for the development of a written vehicle operations training program, including organizational procedures for training, vehicle maintenance, and identifying equipment deficiencies. 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. And NFPA 1901, Automotive Fire Apparatus, addresses stability to prevent rollovers, and gives manufacturers options on how to provide it. The latest edition requires reflective striping for visibility and mandates that ANSI 207-compliant breakaway high-visibility vests be carried on all new apparatus.
The provisions of NFPA 1500 require 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, with all vehicle occupants seated in approved riding positions and secured with seatbelts before the apparatus moves. If 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.
Rita F. Fahy is manager of Fire Databases and Systems in the Fire Analysis and Research Division at NFPA. Paul R. LeBlanc is a fire data assistant at NFPA and a lieutenant with the Boston, Massachusetts, Fire Department. Joseph L. Molis is a fire data assistant and a lieutenant with the Providence, Rhode Island, Fire Department.