Read the main story: Firefighter Fatality Narratives
IN 2012, 64 ON-DUTY FIREFIGHTER DEATHS occurred in the United States. For the past four years, the annual total has been well below 100, dropping the annual average over the past 10 years to 88 deaths. This is the second consecutive year that the total has been below 65 deaths.
Firefighters view the aftermath of a warehouse fire in Pennsylvania in April 2012. Two firefighters in an adjoining building died when a wall of the warehouse collapsed. (Photo: AP/Wide World)
2012 firefighter fatalities by the numbers
- 2012 was the fourth consecutive year in which the total number of firefighter fatalities was below 100.
- 2011 and 2012 had by far the lowest number of firefighter deaths on record, and the annual average number of firefighter deaths has dropped to 88 during the period 2003 to 2012.
- 2012 was the first year in which the on-duty fatalities due to sudden cardiac death dropped below 30.
- The 12 deaths that occurred at structure fires in 2012 was the fewest ever recorded.
Of the 64 firefighters who died while on duty in 2012, 30 were volunteer firefighters, 23 were career firefighters, four were members of the military, three were federal contractors, two were employees of federal land management agencies, and two were prison inmates. This is the lowest number of volunteer firefighter fatalities ever and the second-lowest number of career firefighter deaths.
Type of duty
Twenty-one deaths, which is the largest share of deaths last year, occurred while firefighters were operating on the fire ground. This is the lowest number of fire ground deaths reported since this study began in 1977, and it accounts for just under one-third of the on-duty deaths in 2012. Over the 10-year span from 2003 to 2012, there were an average of 29 fire ground deaths annually, less than half the average of 69 deaths per year from 1977 through 1986, the first 10 years of this study.
Nineteen firefighters died while responding to, or returning from, emergency calls, although not necessarily as the result of crashes. While eight firefighters died in collisions or rollovers, seven died as a result of sudden cardiac events or a stroke, two were shot on arrival at a structure fire, and, in separate incidents, two were hit by falling trees while responding to, or returning from, a fire. Sixteen of the victims were volunteer firefighters, two were career firefighters, and one was the employee of a federal land management agency.
The number of firefighters who died while responding to, or returning from, a call has averaged about 25 per year over the past 10 years. Although the total for 2012 is not as low as the total was the year before, it still is lower than average.
Eight deaths occurred during training activities. Sudden cardiac death claimed five of the eight: Two died during training hikes, two during ladder training, and one while working out at the station. One firefighter became overheated during smoke diver training and died, while another fell from an aerial ladder during training. The eighth firefighter drowned during a dive training exercise.
Four firefighters also died at non-fire emergencies, all of them motor vehicle crashes. Two were struck by vehicles, and two suffered sudden cardiac deaths.
The remaining 12 firefighters died while involved in a variety of non-emergency-related on-duty activities. Eight were engaged in normal administrative or station duties. Six of the eight died of sudden cardiac death, one died as the result of a stroke, and one succumbed to a long-term illness. One collapsed while on a break during an out-of-town fire investigation, and another died while delivering water to a remote camping area. The final two firefighters were involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes while on official fire department assignments.
Fire ground deaths
Of the 21 fire ground fatalities, 12 occurred at 11 structure fires, eight occurred on four wildland fires, and one firefighter died while directing traffic at a vehicle fire. This is the lowest number of deaths at structure fires ever reported in this study.
Six of the 12 firefighters died at structure fires that occurred in residential properties. Fires in one- and two-family dwellings killed five of the six, and one died at a fire in an apartment building. Of the six firefighters who died in nonresidential structures, two were killed when the wall of a burning vacant warehouse collapsed onto the exposed structure where they were operating, and two were killed in separate roof collapses.
Of the two who died in roof collapses, one was killed when the bowstring truss roof of a movie theater collapsed during a fire, and the other when the roof of a restaurant collapsed. Sudden cardiac death claimed the lives of two of the 12 firefighters who died in structure fires, one at a chemical plant and the other at a warehouse.
That warehouse was the only structure that had an automatic suppression system. The wet-pipe sprinkler system operated, with seven heads opening. The system was effective in controlling the fire but did not extinguish it.
Six of the eight victims at wildland fires were killed in two aircraft crashes. One firefighter was struck by a falling snag—part of a dead tree—and a contracted tree feller suffered a fatal cardiac event.
The firefighter who dies while directing traffic at a motor vehicle fire suffered a stroke.
Cause and nature of fatal injury or illness
Half of the firefighter deaths in 2012 resulted from overexertion, stress, and medical issues. Of the 32 deaths in this category, 27 were sudden cardiac deaths, usually heart attacks; three were due to strokes; and one was the result of heat stroke. One man died on duty as a result of a long-term illness.
The second leading cause of fatal injury was being struck by, or coming into contact with, an object. Among the 24 firefighters in this category, 16 died in motor vehicle crashes, three were struck by motor vehicles, three were hit by falling trees, and two were shot to death.
The next leading cause of fatal injury was being caught or trapped, which resulted in six deaths. Four firefighters were killed in three separate structure fires when roofs or walls collapsed. Rapid fire progress in a structure fire resulted in the death of one of the firefighters, and the other drowned during dive training.
Two firefighters were killed in falls. One fell from an aerial ladder during training, and the other fell from the back step of a tanker when it skidded on an icy road. In that second incident, the driver of the apparatus drove away while the victim was still on the back step after filling a dump tank at a structure fire.
Sudden cardiac deaths
In 2012, the 27 sudden cardiac deaths that occurred while the victims were on duty is the lowest number of cardiac deaths since this study began in 1977. Last year was also the fifth consecutive year in which they declined.
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, accounting for 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 annual deaths fell to 44 in the 1990s and to 37 in the past decade. In spite of this reduction, sudden cardiac death still accounted for 42 percent of the on-duty deaths in the last five years. Overall, sudden cardiac death is the number one cause of on-duty fire-fighter fatalities in the United States and usually accounts for the largest share of deaths in any given year.
For 20 of the 27 victims of sudden cardiac events in 2012, autopsy results showed that 14 were hypertensive, 11 had arteriosclerotic heart disease, eight were obese, five had coronary artery disease, five were diabetic, and eight were reported to have had a history of cardiac problems, such as previous heart attacks, bypass surgery, or angioplasty or stent placement. Some of the victims had more than one condition. Other risk factors of the victims of sudden cardiac death included high cholesterol, smoking, and family history.
Medical documentation was not available for the other seven firefighters.
Sudden cardiac death accounts for a higher proportion of the deaths among older firefighters, as might be expected. Almost 60 percent of the firefighters over age 40 who died in 2012, and all of the victims over age 60, died of heart attacks or other cardiac events. The youngest victim of sudden cardiac death was 24.
In 2012, 16 firefighters died in 12 vehicle crashes. Seven of them were killed in separate crashes while responding to incidents, and one was killed while returning from an incident. Five of the eight were passengers in the vehicle. Three were responding to the scene of motor vehicle crashes, three were responding to wildland fires, one was responding to a structure fire, and one was returning from a call concerning a carbon monoxide detector activation.
Six firefighters were also killed in two aircraft crashes at wildland fires. Four died when their aircraft flew into a microburst and then crashed while they were dropping retardant on the fire. The other two firefighters were also in an aircraft dropping fire retardant when their aircraft struck mountainous terrain.
Two firefighters died in crashes while involved in fire department business. One was driving his fire department vehicle to a meeting when he was struck by another vehicle that lost control on a highway. He was wearing a seatbelt. The other victim was returning from a meeting on his motorcycle when he struck a car that pulled out into the road in front of him.
Of the 10 firefighters who died in road vehicles, five were not wearing seatbelts and four were. Of the five who were not wearing seatbelts, four were ejected and one was not. None of the four victims wearing seatbelts was ejected. The tenth victim was riding a motorcycle. Factors reported in the crashes included excessive speed, driver inattention, weather conditions, driver inexperience, and failure to maintain control of the vehicle.
Four firefighters were killed in connection with intentionally set fires last year, two at the scene of the fires and two while responding to a fire. All were structure fires. From 2003 through 2012, 44 firefighters, or 5 percent of all firefighters who died on duty, died in connection with intentionally set fires. The number of these deaths has been dropping since 1985.
In 2012, one firefighter died as a result of a false alarm. Over the past 10 years, 23 firefighter deaths resulted from false calls, including malicious false alarms and alarm malfunctions.
The firefighters who died last year ranged in age from 17 to 79, with a median age of 49. Over the past five years, career and volunteer firefighters in their 20s and 30s have the lowest death rates, with a rate about half the all-age average, while firefighters aged 60 and over have a death rate almost four times the average. Firefighters aged 50 and over accounted for almost half of all firefighter deaths over the five-year period but represent only one-fifth of all career and volunteer firefighters in the United States.
The 30 volunteer firefighter deaths in 2012 represent the lowest number reported in this study for the second consecutive year and maintains the general downward trend seen since 1999. The number of on-duty deaths of volunteer firefighters in 2012 is approximately half the annual average number reported 10 years ago.
The 22 career firefighter deaths that occurred last year is the second-lowest total for career firefighter deaths and just one death more than occurred in 2011. The trend for career firefighter deaths in the United States has been relatively flat over the past 10 years, although the trend has been heading downward since 2009. The high number of career firefighter deaths in 2007 was due to a single, nine-fatality incident.
NFPA standards and other efforts focused on firefighter health and 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 medical requirements that candidate firefighters and incumbent fire department members must meet. NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, calls for fire departments to establish a firefighter health and fitness program that meets the requirements of 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.
NFA’s firefighter fatality 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.
However, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has undertaken a multi-year study to examine the cancer risks to firefighters, using health records of approximately 30,000 current and retired career firefighters from suburban and large city fire departments. Results should be released in 2014. More information about the project is available on the NIOSH website at www.cdc.gov/niosh/firefighters/cii07.html
NFPA also publishes several standards related to road and vehicle 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, Maintenance, Testing, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus
, details a program designed 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. New vehicles will have their maximum speed limited, based on their weight, and will have vehicle data recorders to monitor, among other things, acceleration and deceleration, as well as seatbelt use. NFPA 1906, Wildland Fire Apparatus
, establishes minimum design, performance, and testing requirements for new vehicles over 10,000 pounds (4,536 kilograms) gross vehicle weight rating that are specifically designed for wildland fire suppression.
NFPA is also developing a new standard, NFPA 1091, Traffic Control Incident Management
, which will identify the minimum job performance requirements necessary to perform temporary traffic control duties at emergencies on or near an active roadway. Its first edition will be published in 2015.
NFPA 1500 requires that operators successfully complete an approved driver training program, possess a valid driver’s license for the class of vehicle they operate, 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 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 seatbelts for any reason while the vehicle is in motion.
In related efforts, the United Sates Fire Academy has formed partnerships with the IAFF, the IAFC, and the National Volunteer Fire Council to focus attention on safety while responding in emergency apparatus. For details, visit www.usfa.fema.gov/fireservice/firefighter_health_safety/safety/vehicle_safety/index.shtm
Vehicle safety programs should not focus exclusively on fire department apparatus, since private vehicles have been the vehicles most frequently involved in road crashes over the years. NFPA 1500 requires that fire departments that allow members to respond to incidents or to the fire station in private vehicles establish specific rules, regulations, and procedures relating to the operation of private vehicles in an emergency mode. NFPA 1451 also requires training for those using privately 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 allows firefighters and others engaged on roadways to wear NFPA-compliant turnout 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 park their fire apparatus in a blocking position for protection.
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. You can find advice on compliance with the updated federal rules at www.respondersafety.com/Articles/2009_Edition_of_the_Manual_on_Uniformed_Traffic_Control_Devices_MUTCD_Released_December_16_2009.aspx.
NFPA 1901 also requires that reflective striping be used for improved visibility on all new apparatus and that a reflective chevron be applied on the rear of fire apparatus.
Advice on how to improve the visibility of existing apparatus can be found at www.respondersafety.com/MarkedAndSeen.aspx
To sum it all up
There were 64 on-duty firefighter deaths in 2012, the fourth consecutive year in which the total was under 100 deaths. The total number of deaths has been below 100 for six of the 10 years from 2003 to 2012, and the annual average has dropped to 88 deaths per year within the past 10 years. The years 2011 and 2012 had by far the lowest number of deaths on record, and the years 2009 through 2012 include four of the six lowest number of on-duty firefighter deaths on record.
Although sudden cardiac death accounts for the largest share of on-duty deaths in most years, 2012 marked the first time the total dropped below 30. Overall, the number of on-duty cardiac-related deaths has gradually decreased since 1977, although not as rapidly as the total number of on-duty deaths.
The 21 deaths that occurred on the fire ground last year is the lowest total since 1977, and the number of deaths at structure fires was also the lowest ever, at 12 deaths. Although this is encouraging, given the slight increase in the number of structure fires over the past couple of years, it bears watching, as recent analyses have shown that traumatic deaths that occurred while firefighters were operating inside structures have occurred at rates higher in recent years than reported in the 1970s and 1980s. The rates for fire ground deaths in 2012 will be calculated when the number of structure fires in 2012 is reported in September.
Finally, there were many more road vehicle crash deaths in 2012 than in 2011 — 10 as opposed to four — but the number of crash deaths continues to be lower than the 10-year average. From 2003 to 2012, the number of deaths in road vehicle crashes averaged less than 14 per year, ranging from a low of four in 2011 to a high of 25 in 2003 and 2007. For the fourth consecutive year, and the fifth year over the 10 years from 2003 to 2012, the total number of road vehicle crash deaths was 10 or lower. Historically, vehicle crashes have been the number two cause of on-duty firefighter deaths, with most of the crashes involving road vehicles, so this is a very important and positive trend.
Rita F. Fahy, PhD, is manager of Fire Databases and Systems in NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division. 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.