Firefighter fatalities
. Author(s): Rita Fahy, Paul LeBlanc, Joseph Molis. Published on July 1, 2014.

In 2013, 97 firefighters died while on duty in the United States. This total represents a sharp increase over recent years due primarily to two disastrous incidents: the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, which claimed the lives of 19 wildland firefighters, and the explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas that killed nine firefighters, an EMT, and five local residents. Over the previous four years, the annual total ranged between 61 and 82 deaths.

Of the 97 firefighters who died on duty in 2013, 41 were volunteer firefighters, 25 were career firefighters, 19 were part of a municipal fire department’s wildland firefighting crew, five were employees of federal land management agencies, three were federal contractors, two were state contractors, one was an employee of a state land management agency, and one was a prison inmate.

Type of duty

The largest share of deaths—56—occurred while firefighters were operating on the fire ground. This is the highest number of fire ground deaths since 1999, aside from the deaths at the World Trade Center in 2001, largely due to the 28 deaths in the two largest multiple-fatality fires mentioned above, as well as a four-fatality fire in a motel restaurant. In fact, the number of fatal fires in 2013—26—is consistent with the average number of fatal fires over the previous 10 years, which has ranged from 16 to 29, with a resulting 21 to 37 fire ground deaths annually. However, some of the fatal fires in 2013 were more deadly than usual. Half of the fire ground deaths occurred at 10 wildland fires or prescribed burns, making 2013 an exceptionally bad year for wildland firefighter fatalities.

Seventeen 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. Eight firefighters died in collisions or rollovers, five died of sudden cardiac events, one died of a stroke, one was struck and killed by a vehicle on arrival at a crash scene, one slipped and fell from apparatus on arriving back at the station, and one was killed when he was knocked to the ground in an altercation at the fire station after a call. Thirteen of the victims were volunteer firefighters, three were career firefighters, and one was a contractor with a state land management agency. The number of deaths that occurred while responding to or returning from calls has averaged about 24 per year over the past 10 years and 17 per year over the past five years. Although the 2013 total is not as low as the 2011 total, when 10 deaths occurred, it still continues the recent downward trend.

Seven firefighters died at non-fire emergencies, with six at the scene of motor vehicle crashes and one at a medical emergency. Four of the seven suffered sudden cardiac deaths, and three were struck by vehicles.

Seven deaths occurred during training activities. Sudden cardiac death claimed five firefighters, one during a work capacity test, one during physical fitness training in the fire station, one during recruit training, one while returning from a training conference, and one during an unspecified fire department training exercise at a training facility. One firefighter died in a training jump when his parachute failed to open. The seventh firefighter died in a crash while returning from an off-site mandatory training session.

The remaining 10 firefighters died while involved in a variety of non-emergency-related on-duty activities. Nine of the deaths were due to sudden cardiac death, and one was a suicide at the fire station. Seven of the victims were engaged in normal administrative or station duties, one was performing a safety check at an airport, one was searching for camp fires, and one was searching the woods for explosives.

Fire ground deaths

Last year was the worst year for firefighter deaths at the scenes of fires since 1999—again, not including the deaths at the World Trade Center in 2001. This is mainly due to a 19-fatality wildland fire and an explosion at a fertilizer plant that claimed the lives of nine firefighters. Of the 56 fire ground fatalities, 28 occurred at 10 wildland fires and a prescribed burn, 27 occurred at 15 structure fires, and one occurred at an outside fire.

In addition to the 19 firefighters killed at the Yarnell Hill disaster, four wildland firefighters suffered sudden cardiac death, three were struck by a falling tree limb or snag, one was struck by a passing vehicle, and one died when his ATV rolled over.

In the single worst structure fire in 2013, nine firefighters and an EMT were killed in an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Five of the victims were members of the local volunteer fire department, and the other five were members of neighboring fire departments who responded from a nearby EMS class. One of the five from the EMS class was counted by his fire department as an EMT.

Another 10 of the 27 firefighter deaths at structure fires occurred in residential properties. Seven of the 10 firefighters were killed in fires in one- and two-family houses, two died at fires in apartment buildings, and one was killed in a vacant dwelling. One of the 10 fell through the floor and died as a result of thermal inhalation injuries. Another fell off the roof of a building. A third became lost inside a dwelling and died as a result of inhalation injuries. One firefighter was killed in a structural collapse during search operations, and another was killed when a ceiling collapsed during overhaul. In separate incidents, two firefighters were fatally burned when fire conditions inside the structure deteriorated rapidly. Three of the 10 firefighters suffered sudden cardiac death at the fire scene; two of them died at separate incidents while operating pumps, and the third died during exterior operations.

Of the eight firefighters killed in nonresidential structure fires, four died in a single incident when the roof of a restaurant collapsed. The firefighters had responded to a fire in a motel restaurant and were in the building for firefighting operations and primary search for just a few minutes before the roof collapsed. A firefighter operating at another fire in a restaurant died when he became lost inside the burning structure and ran out of air. And two firefighters were killed in a fire in a function hall. The first became lost inside, and the second was a member of the rapid intervention crew sent in to rescue him. Both were killed when the roof collapsed. The eighth firefighter was electrocuted as he approached a storage shed that was ignited by a downed power line.

None of the structures was reported to have had an automatic fire suppression system.

One firefighter was killed at the scene of an outside fire when he became pinned between his apparatus and another fire apparatus that was backing up.

Cause and nature of fatal injury or illness

By a small margin, overexertion, stress, and medical issues accounted for the largest share of deaths. Of the 32 deaths in this category, 29 were classified as sudden cardiac deaths, usually heart attacks; one was due to a cerebral aneurysm; one was the result of a stroke; and one was a suicide.

The second leading cause of fatal injury was being caught or trapped by rapid fire progress, including flashover, and explosions. This type of injury resulted in 30 deaths. Nineteen of the victims were the members of a wildland firefighting crew that became caught in rapid fire development at the Yarnell Hill Fire, and another nine were victims of the fertilizer plant explosion. Two firefighters in separate incidents became caught by rapid fire progress in structure fires.

Crashes claimed 10 lives, and another 6 firefighters were struck by vehicles and killed.

Structural collapses resulted in a total of eight deaths. Four of the eight firefighters were killed in a single incident when the roof collapsed during a fire. Two other firefighters also died in separate incidents as a result of roof collapses. One firefighter was killed when the floor collapsed, and he fell into the basement. The eighth victim was caught in a ceiling collapse during overhaul operations.

In separate incidents, three firefighters became lost inside structures.

Three firefighters also died at wildland fires when they were struck by falling trees or limbs.

Another three firefighters died in fatal falls. One fell from the roof of a burning structure in heavy smoke. Another slipped and fell in the fire station. And the third fell to the ground when his parachute failed to open during training.

One firefighter was electrocuted after a storm knocked power lines onto a metal structure. And one firefighter was fatally assaulted by another firefighter after returning from an emergency call.

Sudden cardiac deaths

In 2013, the 29 sudden cardiac deaths (in which symptoms occurred while the victim was on duty and death occurred immediately or shortly thereafter) is the second lowest number since this study began in 1977, and 2013 was the second consecutive year with fewer than 30 deaths in this category.

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. The average number of deaths fell to 44 a year in the 1990s and to 35 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 primary cause of on-duty firefighter fatalities in the United States and has accounted for the single largest share of deaths in any given year except 1984 and 2013.

Sudden cardiac death accounts for a higher proportion of the deaths among older firefighters, as might be expected. Almost half of the firefighters over age 40 who died in 2013 and almost two-thirds of those over age 60 died of heart attacks or other cardiac events. The youngest victim of sudden cardiac death was aged 22. According to the NIOSH investigation report on his death, his autopsy showed an enlarged heart with left ventricular hypertrophy, but his heart disease had not been diagnosed.

Vehicle-related deaths

In 2013, 10 firefighters died in vehicle crashes, six were struck and killed by vehicles, and one firefighter fell to his death when his parachute failed to open during a proficiency jump.

Seven of the 10 firefighters who died in crashes were killed while responding to incidents, and one was killed while returning from an incident. All eight were the drivers in single-fatality crashes. Three were responding to the scene of motor vehicle crashes, three were responding to structure fires, one was responding to a wildland fire, and one was returning from a wildland fire.

In the other two crashes, a firefighter riding an ATV searching for the source of a reported fire apparently jumped or was thrown from the vehicle when it started to roll on a slope. The vehicle rolled over him, resulting in fatal injuries. In the other crash, a firefighter returning on his motorcycle from off-site training crossed the centerline on a curve and struck an oncoming vehicle. No other details were reported.

Of the nine firefighter who died in road vehicles, five were not wearing seatbelts. Three of the five were ejected or partially ejected, and two were not. Two of the nine were wearing seatbelts; one was not ejected, and there were no details on the other. No details were reported on the eighth victim, and the ninth was riding a motorcycle. Factors reported in the crashes included excessive speed, weather conditions, intoxication, cargo shifting, failure to yield, and improper passing.

Six firefighters were struck and killed by vehicles. Four of them were working at the scenes of motor vehicle crashes, and two were operating at fires.

Other findings

Two firefighters were killed in connection with intentionally set structure fires last year. From 2004 through 2013, 41 firefighters, representing 5 percent of all on-duty deaths, died in connection with intentionally set fires. The number of these deaths has dropped annually since 1985.

In 2013, no firefighters died as a result of false alarms. Over the past 10 years, 18 firefighters have died as a result of false calls, including malicious false alarms and alarm malfunctions.

The firefighters who died last year ranged in age from 19 to 76, with a median age of 40 years. However, a much higher number of younger firefighters died in 2013 than in other years. Fifteen of the 19 firefighters killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire were between the ages of 21 and 30, accounting for half of the deaths in that age range.

Looking back over the past five years, we see that the lowest death rates were for career and volunteer firefighters under age 40. Their death rate was about half to three-fifths of the all-age average. The rate for firefighters aged 60 and over was more than three times the average. Firefighters aged 50 and over accounted for almost half of all firefighter deaths over the five-year period, although they represent less than one-quarter of all career and volunteer firefighters in the U.S.

Although the 41 deaths of volunteer firefighters in 2013 is a sizeable increase over the number who died in 2012, it is still substantially below the 10-year average of 47 deaths. Overall, the number of deaths of volunteer firefighters while on duty has followed a general downward trend since 1999. The 25 deaths of career firefighters is a small increase over the total of 2012, and 2013 was the fourth consecutive year that the total was 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 health and safety standards

Several NFPA standards focus on firefighter health risks. 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.

Information on developing a wellness-fitness program is also available from other organizations, such as the IAFC/IAFF Fire Service Joint Labor-Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative and the National Volunteer Fire Council’s (NVFC’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.

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, entitled Suicide in the Fire and Emergency Services, 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.

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. However, NIOSH has undertaken a multi-year study to examine the cancer risk of firefighters, using health records of approximately 30,000 current and retired career firefighters from suburban and large city fire departments. Results of the first phase were published last October.

In addition to these standards and NFPA’s standards on training, certification, and protective equipment, NFPA also publishes several standards related to vehicle and road safety. 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 equipment deficiency identification. It also requires 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. New vehicles will have their maximum speed limited, based on their weight, and vehicle data recorders will 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 1091, Traffic Control Incident Management, which is currently being developed, will identify the minimum job performance requirements necessary to perform temporary traffic control duties at emergencies on or near an active roadway. The first edition will be published in 2015 and a proposed draft is available on NFPA’s website for review.

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. 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 seatbelts for any reason while the vehicle is in motion. When members are authorized to respond to incidents or fire stations in private vehicles, NFPA 1500 requires that the fire department establish specific rules, regulations, and procedures relating to the operation of those vehicles in an emergency mode.

In related efforts, the USFA has formed partnerships with the IAFF, NVFC, and IAFC to focus attention on safety while responding in emergency apparatus. Details can be found on USFA’s website.

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 personal protective clothing, or 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 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.

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 here.

In summary

There were 97 on-duty firefighter deaths in 2013, a far higher total than in recent years, but 2013 was still the fifth consecutive year in which the total was under 100 deaths. The increase over previous years was due almost entirely to two high-fatality incidents. With the deaths of 19 wildland firefighters, the Yarnell Hill Fire was the deadliest incident—other than the World Trade Center in 2001—since NFPA started producing this study in 1977. And with nine firefighter fatalities, the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas ranks as the fourth-highest loss-of-life incident. Taken together, 28 of the 56 firefighter deaths last year occurred in just two fires.

With 30 deaths, 2013 was the worst year in terms of deaths related to wildland fires since 1994, when 33 firefighters were killed, including 14 in the South Canyon Fire. On a positive note, no firefighters died in aircraft crashes at wildland fires in 2013, as they have in previous years.

The major incidents of 2013 notwithstanding, sudden cardiac death continues to claim a major share of the on-duty deaths annually. Progress has been made in this area, however, with 29 on-duty cardiac deaths last year, the second lowest total since this study began in 1977, and 2013 was the second consecutive year that the total was below 30.

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 Centers 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 on the study.

 

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