The Fatal Facts of Firefighting

Source: Sanchai Rattakunchorn - 123RF

Research by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), shows that in 2018, 64 firefighters died while on duty in the U.S., continuing a five-year trend of fewer than 70 deaths per year. Another firefighter died in the U.S. Virgin Islands as the result of a cardiac event while operating at a structure fire.

The annual average number of deaths over the past decade is 70.

Research and data show the contributions that job-related exposures have in chronic illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease, and in behavioral health issues that may end in suicide. These deaths and injuries are in addition to the incident-specific deaths and injuries that occur while on-duty.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently undertook two large studies focused on firefighter cancer and concluded that firefighters face a 9 percent increase in cancer diagnoses, and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths, compared to the general population in the U.S. NIOSH has also reported on the risk to firefighters of cardiovascular conditions

According to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA), 82 firefighters and 21 EMTs and paramedics died by suicide in 2018.

There were four multiple-fatality incidents in 2018: two wildland fires, where two firefighters died in each fire; one structure fire, where two firefighters died when the floor collapsed; and an apparatus crash, where two firefighters died while responding to a motor vehicle crash.

The NFPA research shows:

  • The 64 on-duty firefighter deaths in 2018 represent the eighth time in the last 10 years that the total has been below 70;
  • There were 25 deaths at fires in 2018, with the largest share in structure fires (13), followed by wildland (10), a vehicle fire and a gas main explosion;
  • Sudden cardiac death accounted for about 40% of the on-duty fatalities;
  • The number of firefighters struck and killed by vehicles dropped from 10 in 2017 to three in 2018; and
  • There was one murder of a firefighter on responding to a fire call.

Volunteer firefighters carried the largest share of on-duty deaths (32 total), although this number has been reduced in half since 1977. This is the second-lowest total for volunteers, below the annual average of 42 deaths per year.

The total of career firefighter deaths (24) continues a flat trend over the past decade, with the exception of an increase in 2007 because of a single nine-fatality incident in Charleston, South Carolina.

The NFPA also states that there are other organizations that report line-of-duty deaths using different definitions and criteria, including the United States Fire Administration and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

Retired Fire Captain with the Ventura County Fire Dept, Jules Griggs, Editor-in-Chief of SUN News, and President and CEO of Safety Unlimited, Inc., says:

” I truly wanted a job where I get to help people each day at work. I really did not feel “stressed” as I felt that my training and preparation made me ready to perform when called upon. I was a professional firefighter and ready to respond at all times.

However, when I retired, it seemed like a ton of stress had been lifted from my shoulders. I realized I had been carrying the stress of always needing to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, even off duty, as we could always be called back to work, or even cut a vacation short during large incidents which I had done in the past.

I was only a Fire Captain and felt that stress lifted, which made me consider how much stress those who outranked me had to endure. “