Two Virginia firefighters died when their fire truck struck an SUV and flipped onto a third car. (Photo: The Roanoke Times)
Firefighter Fatalities in the United States, 2010
Last year’s 72 deaths were the fewest since the study was launched in 1977
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2011
By Rita F. Fahy, Paul R. LeBlanc, and Joseph L. Molis
Download the full 2010 Firefighter Fatalities Report (PDF, 151 KB)
In 2010, a total of 72 on-duty firefighter deaths occurred in the United States. This is another sharp drop from the 105 on-duty deaths that occurred in 2008 and the 82 that occurred in 2009, and the lowest annual total since NFPA began conducting this yearly study in 1977. The average number of deaths annually over the past 10 years is 95.
Of the 72 firefighters who died while on duty in 2010, 44 were volunteer firefighters, 25 were career firefighters, 2 were employees of state land management agencies, and 1 was a member of a prison inmate crew.
Type of Duty
The largest share of deaths — 21 of them — occurred while firefighters were operating on the fire ground. This total is well below the average 32 deaths per year on the fire ground over the past 10 years and less than a third the average of 69 deaths per year in the first 10 years of this study. The number of fire ground deaths in 2010 is low not only because of the small number of multiple-fatality fires, but also because the number of fires resulting in firefighter deaths in 2010 was the lowest recorded, with 19 fatal fires compared to an average of 28 annually in the previous 10 years.
Eighteen firefighters died while responding to, or returning from, emergency calls. It is important to note that deaths in this category are not necessarily the result of crashes. Twelve of the deaths were due to sudden cardiac events or strokes, five occurred in four collisions or rollovers, and one firefighter was crushed between two fire department vehicles as one was backed into the station. All 18 victims were volunteer firefighters.
Eleven deaths occurred during training activities. Two firefighters died when their personal vehicles crashed while they were returning from a training weekend. Four collapsed and died of sudden cardiac events after training exercises, and one died during unsupervised physical fitness activities. One suffered a stroke after a weekly training meeting at the station, another suffered a brain aneurysm after hose loading training, one died after being exposed to smoke at a wildland live fire training exercise, and one hit his elbow during training and died of necrotizing fasciitis, also known as flesh-eating disease.
Five firefighters died at non-fire emergencies, including two at the scene of motor vehicle crashes; one was struck by a vehicle and the other suffered sudden cardiac death. Another drowned during a swift water rescue, one died after clearing downed trees after a storm, and the fifth was asphyxiated while trying to rescue a worker from a manhole without SCBA before the oxygen levels were tested.
The remaining 17 firefighters died while involved in a variety of non-emergency-related, on-duty activities. These activities included normal administrative or station duties, during which 11 firefighters died; fire station construction projects, during which 2 died; vehicle maintenance, during which 1 died; driving to check on a wildland fire the previous day, during which 1 died; and a work project in a wildland area, during which 1 also died. One firefighter died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while on-duty.
Fire Ground Deaths
Of the 21 fire ground fatalities, 14 occurred at structure fires and 7 occurred on wildland fires. Eight of the 14 deaths at structure fires occurred in residential properties. Fires in one- and two-family dwellings killed six of the eight, and two died in a fire in an apartment building. Two firefighters were killed in a fire in a vacant commercial structure. One firefighter died at a restaurant fire, one at a fire in a furniture store, one in an egg processing plant, and one at a fire involving a grain silo.
The restaurant had a wet-chemical suppression system over the stove, but the fire started in the grease chute above the system, and the system did not activate. None of the other structures had an automatic fire suppression system.
Cause and Nature of Fatal Injury or Illness
More than half the firefighter deaths that occurred last year resulted from overexertion, stress, and related medical issues. Of the 39 deaths in this category, 34 were classified as sudden cardiac deaths, usually heart attacks, and 5 were due to strokes or brain aneurysms.
The second leading cause of fatal injury was being struck by, or coming into contact with, an object. The 19 firefighters killed in this manner included 11 who died in motor vehicle crashes and 4 who were struck by motor vehicles. One of the motor vehicle crashes involved a rescue boat, and the victim drowned. One firefighter was struck and killed when a wall collapsed at a structure fire, and another was struck by a falling snag, which is part of a dead tree. One firefighter was struck by a power hose reel when an over-pressurized water tank failed, and a firefighter who struck his elbow during training died several weeks later of necrotizing fasciitis.
The next leading cause of fatal injury was being caught or trapped, which resulted in eight deaths. Two firefighters were killed in a roof collapse in a vacant commercial structure. Two were killed when they became trapped while checking for fire extension and searching for victims at a fire in an apartment building. Two others died in separate structure fires when they became lost inside, and one firefighter died after being trapped as the fire he was fighting intensified. A fire chief was killed when a silo exploded as he was climbing down from the roof.
Three firefighters were killed in falls. One fell while working around the fire station and suffered fatal head injuries. One firefighter, carrying a fire extinguisher, fell while climbing a fire escape ladder at a structure fire, and one victim fell backwards and hit his head on the ground while helping at a fire station construction project.
One firefighter was exposed to smoke during wildland fire training and suffered sudden cardiac death. Another suffocated while trying to rescue someone from a manhole, and another died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Sudden Cardiac Deaths
Overall, sudden cardiac death is the number one cause of on-duty firefighter fatalities in the United States and almost always accounts for the largest share of deaths in any given year. These are cases in which the onset of symptoms occurred while the victim was on duty and death occurred immediately or shortly thereafter.
The number of deaths in this category 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; that is 44.7 percent of the on-duty deaths during that period.
The average number of deaths fell to 44 a year in the 1990s and to 39 in the past decade. In spite of this reduction, sudden cardiac death still accounted for 40 percent of the on-duty deaths in the last five years and 49 percent of on-duty deaths in 2010 alone.
For 23 of the 35 victims of sudden cardiac events in 2010, post mortem medical documentation showed that 9 were hypertensive, 8 had coronary artery disease, 3 were diabetic, and 11 were reported to have had previous heart problems, such as heart attacks, bypass surgery, angioplasty, or stent placement. Some of the victims had more than one condition. Other risk factors present among the victims of sudden cardiac death included obesity, high cholesterol, smoking, and a family history of heart disease.
Sudden cardiac death accounts for a higher proportion of the deaths among older firefighters, as might be expected. Sixty percent of the firefighters over age 40 who died in 2010 died of heart attacks or other cardiac events. The youngest victim of sudden cardiac death was 33.
In 2010, 11 firefighters died in nine vehicle crashes. Five of the deaths occurred in four crashes involving personal vehicles, including an ATV, and two occurred in the crash of a pumper. The other crashes involved one death each in a rescue boat, a tracked vehicle, a tractor-trailer, and a crew-carrying vehicle. Five of the 11 firefighters were killed in four crashes while responding to incidents. The remaining six deaths occurred while firefighters were returning from training, during which two firefighters died; while on official non-emergency assignments, during which another two died; on a wildland fire, during which one firefighter died; and during a swift water rescue, during which another died.
Of the nine firefighters who died in road vehicles, four were not wearing seatbelts and were ejected. Four were wearing seatbelts, although one was ejected; the other three were not. No information on seatbelt use was available for one of the victims, who was ejected from his vehicle. Alcohol may have been a factor in one of the crashes, and excessive speed was a factor in at least two of the seven crashes. Other factors reported were driver inexperience, driver inattention, and weather conditions.
There were no deaths at intentionally set fires in 2010, though one firefighter died in a vehicle crash while returning to check on an extinguished fire that had been set. From 2001 through 2010, 52 firefighters, representing 5.5 percent of all on-duty deaths, died in connection with intentionally set fires. The number of these deaths has been dropping annually since 1985.
No firefighter deaths resulted from false alarms or false calls in 2010, either. Over the past 10 years, 24 firefighter deaths have resulted from false calls, including malicious false alarms and alarm malfunctions.
The firefighters who died in 2010 ranged in age from 20 to 86, with a median age of 52.5 years. Two were over age 80. Over the past five years, the lowest death rates were for firefighters in their 20s. Their death rate was less than half the all-age average. Firefighters in their 30s had a death rate two-thirds the all-age average, and the rate for firefighters aged 60 and over was almost four times the average. Firefighters aged 50 and over accounted for more than two-fifths of all firefighter deaths over the five-year period, although they represent only one-fifth of all career and volunteer firefighters in the United States.
Areas Where Deaths Occurred
The decrease in on-duty firefighter deaths in 2010 did not occur in the area that accounts for the largest share of on-duty firefighter deaths annually: There was no reduction in the number of sudden cardiac deaths in 2010. In fact, the 35 deaths in 2010 match the number in 2009 and is almost equal to the average number of deaths in the past five years. So where did the drop in deaths occur?
The reduction in deaths is actually fairly diverse. In 2010, we saw 21 fire ground deaths, the lowest number of fire ground deaths ever, and 18 deaths while responding to, or returning from, alarms, which is the second-lowest number of deaths ever in that category.
Deaths at non-fire emergencies were at about two-thirds the level of the previous 10 years. However, deaths related to training activities and deaths while engaged in other on-duty activities just about matched the average numbers from the previous 10 years at 11 and 18, respectively.
Looking at these findings more closely, we see that we had the second-lowest number of deaths of career and volunteer firefighters — 69 in 2010, vs. an average of 84 in the previous 10 years — combined with the lowest number of deaths of state, federal, and other firefighters — three in 2010, vs. an average of 14 in the previous decade. Deaths of state, federal, and other firefighters are most often connected to wildland fires.
Among career firefighters, the number of deaths on the fire ground matched the average for the previous 10 years, but there were no deaths while responding to, or returning from, alarms or while operating at non-fire emergencies. For volunteer firefighters, all categories of type of duty except fire ground deaths had totals close to the 10-year average, although training was slightly higher than average. For fire ground deaths, volunteers experienced half the number of deaths than average; there were eight deaths in 2010, compared to 16 per year over the previous 10 years.
The second most frequent cause of firefighter deaths is crashes in which the victim is in the vehicle. As noted earlier, there were nine deaths in crashes in 2010 and 2009. In the decade before, however, there was an average of 16 deaths in vehicle crashes annually, with 25 deaths in 2003 and 2007. It is too soon to conclude that this is a positive trend, but it is promising.
NFPA Standards and Other Efforts Focused on Firefighter Health and Safety
Several NFPA standards focus on the health risks to firefighters. NFPA 1582, Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments, outlines for fire departments 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.
Information on developing a wellness/fitness program is available from other organizations, such as 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 Firefighter Program was launched in 2003 to address heart attack prevention for all firefighters and EMS personnel, through fitness, nutrition, and health awareness.
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. NIOSH has undertaken a multi-year study to examine the cancer risk of firefighters, using health records of approximately 18,000 current and retired career firefighters from suburban and large-city fire departments. Results should be available in 2013. More information about the project is available on the NIOSH website, www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/cancerStudy.html.
NFPA also publishes several standards related to road safety issues. NFPA 1002, Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, identifies the 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 the 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 vehicle stability to prevent rollovers and gives manufacturers options on providing it. New vehicles will have their maximum speed limited, based on their weight, and will have vehicle data recorders to monitor, among other things, acceleration, deceleration, and seatbelt use.
NFPA 1500 requires 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, 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, and unguarded railroad grade crossings. Passengers must be seated and belted securely and must not release or loosen the seatbelts for any reason while the vehicle is in motion.
In related efforts, the USFA has formed partnerships with the IAFF, the NVFC, and the IAFC to focus attention on firefighter safety while responding in emergency apparatus. Details can be found on USFA’s website, www.usfa.dhs.gov/fireservice/research/safety/vehicle.shtm.
The focus of vehicle safety programs should not be exclusively on fire department apparatus, since, over the years, personal vehicles have been those most frequently involved in road crashes. NFPA 1500 requires that fire departments establish specific rules, regulations, and procedures relating to the operation of private vehicles in an emergency mode when members are authorized to respond to incidents or to fire stations in private vehicles. NFPA 1451 also requires training for those using personally owned vehicles.
Requirements are also in effect 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 created for firefighters and others engaged on roadways allows them to wear NFPA-compliant retroreflective 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 to use fire apparatus in a blocking position to protect the 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 2009 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 www.respondersafety.com. NFPA 1901 also requires reflective striping for improved visibility on new apparatus and a reflective chevron on the rear of fire apparatus. Advice on how to improve visibility of existing apparatus can be found at www.respondersafety.com/MarkedAndSeen.aspx.
In August 2010, NFPA’s Standards Council established the Technical Committee for Traffic Control Incident Management. The technical committee will have jurisdiction over documents that address professional qualifications for emergency responders in relation to their operations on roadways. NFPA 1091, Traffic Control Incident Management, will identify the minimum job performance requirements necessary to perform temporary traffic control duties at emergencies on or near an active roadway.
There were 72 on-duty firefighter deaths in 2010, the lowest total since NFPA began this study in 1977. It is also the fifth time in the past 10 years that the total number of deaths has been below 100. The annual average has dropped to 95 deaths per year in the past 10 years.
While the number of total deaths has dropped sharply, the number of cardiac-related deaths has not. The number of such deaths has been remarkably stable over the past six years, with between 35 and 39 deaths annually. The 35 sudden cardiac deaths that occurred in 2010 accounted for almost 50 percent of the total firefighter deaths.
There were nine deaths in road vehicle crashes in 2010, the same number as there were in 2009. This is, again, the lowest total since 1983, when there were only six. Over the past 10 years, the number of deaths in road vehicle crashes has averaged 15 a year, ranging from the low of 9 in 2009 and 2010 to a high of 25 in 2003 and 2007.
The lowest number of fire ground deaths since the study began in 1977 occurred in 2010, but, as detailed in the 2009 firefighter fatality study, firefighter death rates while operating inside at structure fires continue at levels higher than those observed through the 1970s and 1980s. The theme of the 2011 Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week, held in June, was, “Surviving the Fire Ground—Fire Fighter, Fire Officer and Command Preparedness.” The event, co-sponsored by IAFF and IAFC, focused on firefighter survival training and education.
This study is made possible by the cooperation and assistance of the United States fire service, the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program of the Department of Justice, the Center for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the United States Fire Administration, the Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The authors would also like to thank Carl E. Peterson, retired from NFPA’s Public Fire Protection Division, and Thomas Hales, MD, MPH, of CDC-NIOSH, for their assistance with the study.
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 at NFPA and a lieutenant with the Providence, Rhode Island, Fire Department.
U.S. Department of Justice Death, Disability, and Educational Benefits for Public Safety Officers and Survivors
Line-of-duty deaths: The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Act, signed into law in 1976, provides a federal death benefit to the survivors of the nation’s federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement officers, firefighters, and rescue and ambulance squad members, both career and volunteer, whose deaths are the direct and proximate result of a traumatic injury sustained in the line of duty. The Act was amended in 2000 to include FEMA employees performing official, hazardous duties related to a declared major disaster or emergency. Effective December 15, 2003, public safety officers are covered for line-of-duty deaths that are a direct and proximate result of a heart attack or stroke, as defined in the Hometown Heroes Survivors’ Benefits Act of 2003.
A 1988 amendment increased the amount of the benefit from $50,000 to $100,000 and included an annual cost-of-living escalator. On October 1 of each year, the benefit changes as a result. The enactment of the USA PATRIOT Bill in 2001 increased the benefit to $250,000. The current benefit is $318,111.64, tax free.
A decedent’s spouse and minor children usually are the eligible beneficiaries. Generally, in cases in which the public safety officer had no surviving spouse or eligible children, the death benefit is to be awarded to either the individual most recently designated as beneficiary for PSOB benefits with the officer’s public safety agency, organization, or unit, or, if there is no designation of beneficiary of PSOB benefits on file, then to the individual designated as beneficiary under the most recently executed life insurance policy on file with the agency at the time of death. (See 42 U.S.C. § 3796(a)(4) for specific details.) If no individuals qualify under 42 U.S.C. § 3796(a)(4), the benefit is paid to the public safety officer’s surviving parents.
Line-of-duty disability: In 1990, Congress amended the PSOB benefits program to include permanent and total disabilities that occured on or after November 29, 1990. The amendment covers public safety officers who are permanently unable to perform any gainful employment in the future. PSOB is intended for those few, tragic cases where an officer survives a catastrophic, line-of-duty injury. Only then, in the presence of the program’s statutory and regulatory qualifying criteria, will PSOB’s disability benefit be awarded. The bill’s supporters anticipated that few PSOB disability claims would be eligible annually.
Public Safety Officers’ Educational Assistance Program (PSOEA): An additional benefit, signed into law in October 1996 and amended in 1998, provides an educational assistance allowance to the spouse and children of public safety officers whose deaths or permanent and total disabilities qualify under the PSOB Act. This benefit is provided directly to dependents who attend a program of education at an eligible education institution and are the children or spouses of covered public safety officers. It is retroactive to January 1, 1978, for beneficiaries who have received or are eligible to receive the PSOB death benefit. Students may apply for PSOEA funds for up to 45 months of full-time classes. As of October 1, 2009, the maximum benefit a student may receive is $936 per month of full-time attendance.
Further benefits information: To initiate a claim for death benefits, to receive additional information on filing a disability claim, or to receive additional information about coverage, call, email, or write the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Office, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, 810 7th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20531. The telephone number is (888) 744-6513 and the email address is ASKPSOB@usdoj.gov. PSOB death claims can now be filed online as well, at www.psob.gov. Please note that the PSOB office call center is now available to take calls Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.