Firefighters work in varied and complex environments that increase their risk of on-the-job death and injury. A better understanding of how these fatalities, injuries, and illnesses occur can help identify corrective actions, which could help minimize the inherent risks. In an effort to do just that, NFPA studies firefighter deaths and injuries annually to provide national statistics on their frequency, extent, and characteristics.
Based on survey collected from fire departments during the NFPA Survey of Fire Departments for U.S. Fire Experience, NFPA estimates that 69,400 firefighter injuries occurred in the line of duty in 2012. This is a slight decrease of 1 percent from the year before and the lowest it’s been since NFPA analyses began in 1981. In recent years, the number of firefighter injuries has been considerably lower than they were in the 1980s and 1990s, but this is due, in part, to additional survey questions on exposures that allow us to place them in their own categories, rather than including them as part of the total injuries in other categories.
NFPA also estimates that there were 8,150 exposures to infectious diseases last year, such as hepatitis, meningitis, and HIV, amounting to 0.3 exposures per 1,000 emergency medical runs by fire departments. In addition, there were 19,200 exposures to hazardous conditions, such as asbestos, radioactive materials, chemicals, and fumes in 2012. This amounts to 18.2 exposures per 1,000 hazardous condition runs. An estimated 14,350 injuries, or 20.6 percent of all firefighter injuries, resulted in time out of work.
2012 FIREFIGHTER INJURIES BY THE NUMBERS
- There were 69,400 firefighter injuries in the line of duty in 2012, a slight decrease of 1 percent from the year before.
- In addition to injuries, there were 8,150 exposures to infectious diseases and 19,200 exposures to hazardous conditions.
- Of the injuries, 31,490, or 45.4 percent of all firefighter injuries in 2012, occurred during fireground operations. An estimated 4,190 occurred while responding to, or returning from, an incident; 7,140 during training activities; 12,760 at nonfire emergencies, and 13,820 during other on-duty activities.
- The Northeast reported a higher number of fireground injuries per 100 fires than other regions of the United States.
- The major types of injuries received during fireground operations were strains, sprains, and muscular pain, which accounted for 55.2 percent of the injuries; wounds, cuts, bleeding, and bruises, which accounted for 12.2 percent; thermal stress, which accounted for 5.8 percent; and burns, which accounted for 5.7 percent. Strains, sprains, and muscular pain accounted for 58.5 percent of all nonfireground injuries.
- The leading causes of fireground injuries were overexertion, strain, and falls, slips, and jumps.
Injuries by type of duty
Estimates of firefighter injuries by type of duty are separated into five categories: injuries incurred while responding to or returning from an incident, including fires and nonfire emergencies; fireground injuries, including those sustained at structure, vehicle, and brush fires; injuries incurred at nonfire emergencies, including rescue calls and calls to natural disasters and hazardous spills; training injuries; and injuries sustained at other on-duty activities, such as inspection or maintenance duties.
Not surprisingly, the largest share of injuries occurs during fireground operations, which refers to all activities firefighters undertake from the moment they arrive at the scene until they leave, including set up, extinguishment, and overhaul. In 2012, 31,490, or 45.4 percent, of all firefighter injuries occurred during fireground operations, an increase of 3.2 percent from the year before.
Injuries at the fireground dropped from a high of 67,500 in 1981 to 31,490 in 2012, for a decrease of 53.3 percent. The number of fires has also declined steadily for an overall decrease of 52.5 percent since 1981.
The rate of injuries per 1,000 fires has not shown any consistent trend up or down from 1981 to 2012, which suggests that, even though the number of fires and fireground injuries declined similarly during the period, the injury rate did not. In fact, the fireground injury rate risk hardly changed between 1981 and 2012.
Overall, the number of injuries at nonfire emergencies between 1981 and 2012 increased from 9,600 in 1981 to 12,760 in 2012, for an overall increase of 33 percent. During the same period, the number of nonfire emergencies increased a substantial 294 percent due, in large part, to an increase in the number of medical aid incidents. When we examine the injury rate per 1,000 nonfire emergencies, we find that the rate declined from 1.24 in 1981 to 0.42 in 2012, because the number of nonfire emergencies increased at a higher rate than the number of injuries at nonfire emergencies.
In addition, 4,190 firefighters were injured in 2012 while responding to, or returning from, an incident. Of all firefighter injuries, 7,140 occurred during training activities, and 13,820 occurred during other on-duty activities.
Nature and cause of fireground injuries
The major types of injuries that occurred during fireground operations in 2012 were strains and sprains, which accounted for 55.2 percent of injuries; wounds, cuts, bleeding, and bruises, which accounted for 12.2 percent; thermal stress, which accounted for 5.8 percent; and burns, which accounted for 5.7 percent.
Results were also fairly consistent during all nonfireground activities, with strains, sprains, and muscular pain accounting for 58.5 percent of all nonfireground injuries, and wounds, cuts, bleeding, and bruises accounting for 16 percent.
When we examined the cause of fireground injuries in 2012, we found that most were the result of overexertion and strains, which led to 27.5 percent of the injuries, and falls, jumps, and slips, which led to 23.2 percent.
Other major causes were coming into contact with objects, leading to 10.9 of injuries, and exposure to fire products, leading to 9.7 percent. In this instance, the term “cause” refers to the initial circumstance leading to the injury.
Fire department vehicle collisions
In 2012, an estimated 14,300 collisions involved fire department emergency vehicles that were responding to, or returning from, incidents. To put this number in perspective, fire departments responded to more than 31.8 million incidents last year, so that the number of collisions represents about one-tenth of 1 percent of total responses. However, they resulted in 725 firefighter injuries, or 1 percent of all firefighter injuries during 2012.
Another 750 collisions involved firefighters’ own vehicles, which they were driving to or from incidents. These collisions resulted in an estimated 70 injuries.
Average fires and fireground injuries per department by population and region protected
NFPA also examined the average number of fires and fireground injuries per department by population of community protected in 2012. These tabulations show that the number of fires a fire department responds to is directly related to the size of the population it protects and that the number of fireground injuries the department incurs is directly related to its exposure to fire and to the number of fires it attends. This second point is clearly demonstrated when we examine the range of the statistic, which ran the gamut from a high of 87.1 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.
A useful way to look at firefighter injury experience and to obtain a reading on the relative risk that departments face is to examine the number of fireground injuries that occur for every 100 fires a fire department attends. This takes into account relative fire experience and allows more direct comparison among departments protecting communities of different sizes. In 2012, the overall range of rates varied from a high of 3.3 for fire departments that protect communities of 250,000 to 999,999 residents to a low of 1.1 for departments that protect communities of 5,000 to 9,999. Thus, the wide range noted in average fireground injuries by the size of the population a department protects narrows when relative fire experience is taken into account. The overall injury rate for departments protecting communities with a population of 50,000 or more was 2.4 injuries per 100 fires, 71 percent higher than the injury rate for departments protecting communities of fewer than 50,000 residents.
We also examined the risk of fireground injury per 100 firefighters by size of community protected. Larger departments generally had the highest rates, with departments protecting communities of 250,000 to 499,999 having the highest rate of 8.3 injuries per 100 firefighters. As community size decreases, the rate drops quite steadily to a low of 0.8 for departments protecting less than 2,500 people.
That is more than a ten-to-one difference in risk of injury between communities of 250,000 to 499,999 and communities with fewer than 2,500 residents.
An explanation for this difference is that, although a department protecting a community with a population of 250,000 to 499,999 has, on average, more than 22 times as many firefighters as a department protecting a population of less than 2,500, the larger department responds to more than 92 times as many fires and, as a result, incurs considerably more fireground injuries.
NFPA also studied the average number of fires and fireground injuries per department by population of community protected and region of the United States. The results for each region indicate that the number of fires a fire department responds to is directly related to the size of the population it protects and that the number of fireground injuries a department incurs is directly related to the number of fires to which it responds. The Northeast reported a higher number of fireground injuries per 100 fires for most community sizes where all departments reported sufficient data by region.
Improving firefighter safety
As these statistics attest, firefighting presents great risks of personal injury to firefighters. Moreover, because of the kind of work firefighters perform and the hazards to which they are exposed at the incident scene, 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 that can reduce current injury levels.
For example, top fire service management can commit to reducing injuries using Section 4.3 of NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, and establish a safety committee headed by a safety officer to recommend a safety policy and the means of implementing it, as put forth in Section 4.5. An investigation procedure that includes all accidents, near misses, injuries, fatalities, occupational illnesses, and exposures involving firefighters can be developed and implemented using paragraphs 4.4.4 and 4.4.5 of NFPA 1500, and appropriate protective equipment can be provided and used in accordance with Sections 7.1 through 7.8.
Fire departments can develop and enforce a program detailing the use and maintenance of SCBA, per Sections 7.9 through 7.14, as well as policies that mandate safe practices for fire apparatus drivers and passengers per Sections 6.2 and 6.3.
Paragraph 4.1.2 of NFPA 1500 can be used to develop procedures that ensure that sufficient personnel respond for both firefighting and overhaul duties, as can NFPA 1710, Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, and NFPA 1720, Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments.
Sections 10.1 through 10.3 of NFPA 1500 contain information that can help fire department management implement regular medical examinations and a physical fitness program, as can NFPA 1582, Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments, and NFPA 1583, Health-Related Fitness Programs for Fire Department Members.
Section 8.1 of NFPA 1500 addresses the adoption and implementation of an incident management system, as does NFPA 1561, Emergency Services Incident Management System and Command Safety, while Chapter 5 of NFPA 1500 provides details on training and education for emergency operations for all fire department members.
To implement programs for the installation of private fire protection systems that allow fires to be discovered at an earlier stage, exposing the firefighter to a less hostile environment, fire department management may consult NFPA 1, Uniform Fire Code; NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code® ; and NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®.
To make citizens aware of measures they can take to prevent fires and react correctly to them should they occur, fire departments can increase their efforts in the area of fire safety education programs by following the recommendations found in Chapter 6 of NFPA 1201, Providing Emergency Services to the Public.
Other NFPA standards that may help in reducing firefighter injuries include the 2008 edition of NFPA 1584, Rehabilitation Process for Members During Emergency Operations and Training Exercises, particularly Chapter 4, Preparedness, and Chapter 6, Incident Scene and Training Rehabilitation. Also helpful is the 2010 edition of NFPA 1002, Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualification Risk Management, particularly Section 4.8, The Risk Management Process, as well as the 2010 edition of NFPA 1620, Pre-Incident Planning, particularly Chapter 4, Pre-Incident Planning Process; Chapter 5, Physical and Site Considerations; Chapter 7, Water Supplies and Fire Protection Systems; and Chapter 8, Special Hazards.
By addressing these priorities, fire service organizations can make significant strides towards reducing the number and impact of injuries firefighters suffer every year. Firefighter injuries can be reduced, but only if we adequately address their causes.
For the full 2012 report, visit nfpa.org/firefighterinjuries.
Description of NFPA Survey and Data Collection Method
NFPA annually surveys a sample of fire departments in the United States to make national projections of the fire problem. A total of 2,795 departments responded to the 2012 fire experience survey.
This sample was stratified by the size of the community the department protects. All U.S. fire departments that protect communities of 50,000 or more residents were included in the sample because they constitute a small number of departments that protect a large share of the total population. For departments that protect fewer than 50,000 people, stratifying the sample by community size permits greater precision in the estimates.
National projections were made by weighting sample results according to the proportion of total U.S. population accounted for by communities of each size. For any estimate based on a sample survey there is a confidence interval that measures the statistical certainty (or uncertainty) of the estimate. We are very confident that the actual number of total firefighter injuries falls within 5 percent of the estimate.
The results in this article were based on injuries that occurred during incidents to which public fire departments responded. No adjustments were made for injuries that occurred during fires attended solely by private fire brigades, such as those at industrial or military installations.
NFPA sent a form to fire departments requesting information to enhance the selected incident summaries. The form included questions on the type of protective equipment worn, the ages and ranks of the firefighters injured, and a description of the circumstances that led to the injury.
NFPA thanks the many fire departments that responded to the 2012 NFPA survey of U.S. fire experience for their continuing efforts in providing in a timely manner the data so necessary to make national projections of firefighter injuries. The authors are grateful to the many NFPA staff members who worked on this year’s survey, including Frank Deely, John Baldi, and John Conlon for editing and keying the survey forms and for their follow-up calls to fire departments, and Norma Candeloro for processing the survey forms and typing this report.
Michael J. Karter, Jr. is senior statistician with NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division. Joseph L. Molis is a fire data assistant and a lieutenant with the Providence, Rhode Island, Fire Department.