Officials Optimistic About Decline in On-Duty Deaths

EMMITSBURG, Md. --

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"We are cautiously optimistic," USFA Acting Administrator Glenn Gaines said of data that shows the lowest number of firefighter fatalities since his agency started tracking the information in 1977.

Provisional statistics show 85 firefighters across the country died on duty last year. Of those, 15 were classified as Hometown Heroes.

This is the second year in a row that the number of deaths has shown a decline.

While it's too early to call it a trend, Gaines and others are pleased to see things changing.

The USFA has partnered with major fire service organizations on a number of initiatives to promote safety.

"The responsibility for the health and safety of firefighters rests on the fire chiefs' shoulders," Gaines said.

With heart attacks still the top cause of firefighter deaths, Gaines said it's more important than ever for every responder to receive an annual physical.

"A physical isn't enough, however. They have to follow up with things or tests that are suggested," he said.

The former Fairfax County, Va. fire chief also is a proponent of the National Seat Belt Pledge, and urged all responders to buckle up.

"Whether you are driving an emergency apparatus or a personal vehicle, obey all traffic laws. Stop at red lights and make sure the intersection is clear."

Alex Furr, director of national fire programs division, echoed Gaines' sentiment about being cautiously optimistic.

"We will be watching this closely," she said. "We certainly hope this is the beginning of a trend."

Furr also mentioned that many years ago, there was a dip in fatalities, but that didn't last long. She hopes for a different outcome this time.

There's no time for complacency, she added.

In addition to making sure firefighters are fit both physically and emotionally prepared to do the job, NFA Deputy Superintendent Rob Neale said it's also important that crews understand fire ground operations including knowledge of construction.

Fires also are burning hotter, and giving off a smorgasbord of toxic gases from the ever-increasing number of synthetic items in homes or businesses.

Neale said it's important that crews wear breathing apparatus during not only overhaul but during investigations as well.

The USFA is currently involved in an intense study to determine a link between firefighting and cancer.

While the numbers are provisional, the head of the organization dedicated to taking care of fallen firefighters' survivors also is pleased.

"I think the internet is helping us immensely. We are reaching firefighters about the importance of safe practices," Ron Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters' Foundation, said.

He added that the medium has helped firefighters separate fact from myth.

"Not one of the 16 Life Safety Initiatives says a firefighter can't be aggressive doing their job. It just suggests proceeding safely"

Siarnicki added that the foundation is currently involved in a myriad of projects, all with one mission -- keeping firefighters safe.

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