Author(s): Rita Fahy, Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 29, 2021.

Report: On-Duty Firefighter Fatalities in 2020
Last year, more firefighters died in the line of duty than since 2001. Research shows COVID infections are to blame. Plus, a look at the 62 non-COVID-related on-duty firefighter deaths in 2020.


Last year, a total of 140 firefighters in the United States died while on the job—more than double the figure reported in 2019. Of those, 78 are believed to have died from line-of-duty COVID-19 exposures. An additional 62 on-duty firefighter deaths occurred from other causes.

These are the findings of a new NFPA report that will be published in October.

RELATED: Read the NFPA report on 2019 on-duty firefighter fatalities in the US

Many of the COVID-19 firefighter deaths in 2020 were tied to specific emergency calls, particularly medical calls, where firefighters were exposed to infected members of the public. Other cases, however, were attributed to exposures at the fire station. 

Just as firefighters should never enter a burning building without the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) like self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), experts say it’s critical for them to have access to and wear the proper PPE for medical calls that could involve individuals infected with COVID-19. 

“What some people may not realize is that the majority of fire department emergency calls in the US are medical calls,” said Curt Floyd, responder technical lead at NFPA. “The percentage of medical calls versus fire calls fluctuates from region to region, but recent data shows the average fire department is only seeing about 4 percent fire calls while about 65 percent are medical aid or rescue calls. Firefighters need to be ready to respond to just about anything these days. In the case of medical emergency calls, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, firefighters must follow universal precautions as a guideline for PPE and safe practices. This could include wearing masks, gowns, face shields, and gloves.”

Watch a related NFPA Journal video about pandemic infection control procedures for first responders, as outlined in NFPA 1581, Standard on Fire Department Infection Control Program.

In reporting line-of-duty COVID deaths, NFPA is following inclusion criteria similar to what is used by the US Public Safety Officers Benefits (PSOB) Program and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). The Safeguarding America’s First Responders Act allows PSOB to recognize the eligibility of COVID-19 diagnoses for firefighters within 45 days of their last day on duty.

As a result of the 2020 COVID-related deaths, the total number of on-duty firefighter deaths in the US in 2020 was higher than has been reported since the late 1970s. The only exception is 2001, when more than 300 firefighters died in the September 11 terrorist attacks

These statistics mirror other nationwide trends, which have continued into 2021. According to the Associated Press, more than 130 law enforcement officers have died from COVID-19 this year. In 2020, the National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund confirmed 145 COVID-related deaths among police officers.

Data shows the grim impact of COVID-19 on first responders has extended beyond just active-duty individuals, too. According to the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, at least 100 first responders who were at the World Trade Center on 9/11 have died from COVID. 

“We do very much worry about people from the World Trade Center incident,” a New York City hospital system spokesperson said in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have a number of people who may be suffering from lung dysfunction due to their exposure. ... When your lung function and structure are not normal, your risk [of severe COVID] is greater.”

Non-COVID deaths: key findings 

Although the 62 on-duty firefighter deaths recorded in 2020 not related to COVID-19 is higher than the 48 fatalities reported for 2019, it is in line with the average death toll over the previous five years, when between 60 and 70 firefighters died annually while on-duty.

The upcoming NFPA report will focus mainly on these non-COVID deaths. Below are key findings from the research. 

The largest share of firefighter deaths occurred on the fire ground (20 deaths), and included 10 deaths on wildland fires, nine at structure fires, and one at an illegal outside burn. This is the fourth time in the past five years that the total number of deaths at the scene of fires has been at or below 20. This continues the clear downward trend in deaths since the late 1970s, when the number of fireground deaths averaged more than 80 per year.

Six of the 10 deaths on wildland fires were the result of four aircraft crashes. Two other firefighters were overrun by fire and burned, and two suffered fatal cardiac events.

The nine deaths at structure fires included six in fires in one- and two-family homes, two in a library, and one in a barn. Four firefighters were killed in structural collapses, two became lost inside a structure while searching for a victim, and three suffered fatal cardiac events. None of the structures in which firefighters died was reported to have had an automatic fire suppression system.

Eighteen firefighters were killed responding to or returning from alarms, the highest number of deaths in this category in the past eight years. Nine of these 18 firefighters suffered fatal cardiac events and three suffered strokes. Five were killed in motor vehicle crashes. One was shot on arrival at the scene.

Six firefighters died at non-fire emergencies, including two at motor vehicle crashes, two during water rescues, one at a medical call, and one at the scene of a non-fire structural collapse.

Six deaths occurred during training activities. Sudden cardiac death claimed the lives of three during physical fitness activities. One firefighter drowned during dive training, one was involved in a motor vehicle crash, and one fell from a fire escape.

Twelve firefighter fatalities in 2020 involved a variety of normal station, administrative, or maintenance activities
; most of those deaths were cardiac-related.

Firefighters who died on the job in 2020 ranged in age from 18 to 72, with a median age of 48. Sudden cardiac death accounted for a higher proportion of the deaths among older firefighters, as might be expected. Almost two-thirds of the firefighters over age 45 who died in 2020 died of heart attacks or other cardiac events.

The firefighters who died last year included 27 volunteer firefighters, 23 career firefighters, 10 employees or contractors of state and federal land management agencies, and two members of the military.
The 27 volunteer firefighter deaths is the second-lowest reported in all the years of this study. The 24 deaths of career firefighters while on-duty in 2020 continues the trend over the previous 10 years where the total has been in the 20s or lower.

Two firefighters were murdered while on duty in 2020—one while investigating a report of smoke and the other during an arson investigation. One firefighter died by suicide while on duty, and another suffered an accidental drug overdose. Four firefighters died at three fires that were deliberately set. One firefighter died after returning to the station after a false call from an automatic system.

More information about this report will appear in the Winter 2021 issue of NFPA Journal.

RITA F. FAHY, PH.D., is a manager in NFPA’s Applied Research Division. JAY T. PETRILLO is a fire data assistant at NFPA and a captain with the fire department in North Providence, Rhode Island. ANGELO VERZONI is associate editor of NFPA Journal. TOP PHOTOGRAPH: GETTY IMAGES