Firefighter Fatalities

J. Gordon Routley, Reade Bush and Jeffrey Stern recommend measures that help prevent line-of-duty deaths.


Over the past two decades, we have made tremendous progress in improving firefighter safety which has resulted in a downward trend in the number of firefighter line-of-duty deaths. The total number of deaths has been reduced from about 150 annually in the 1970s to around 120 in the 1980s to around...


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Over the past two decades, we have made tremendous progress in improving firefighter safety which has resulted in a downward trend in the number of firefighter line-of-duty deaths. The total number of deaths has been reduced from about 150 annually in the 1970s to around 120 in the 1980s to around 100 in the 1990s. This clearly shows that the efforts that have been directed toward safety have been successful, up to a point. We have almost eliminated falls from fire apparatus as a cause of death, by adopting fully enclosed apparatus and learning how to fasten our seatbelts. Where do we go from here to further reduce the loss of lives?

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Photo by James M. Kubus/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
More than 10,000 firefighters were in attendance at joint funeral services for three Pittsburgh, PA, firefighters who were killed in the line of duty last year. The Pittsburgh firefighters died when they ran out of air at a house fire.

Almost half of the total deaths are caused by heart attacks, many of which are triggered by stress and overexertion at emergency incidents. We could reduce a significant number of those deaths by simply improving the physical fitness of firefighters. We could also ensure that regular medical examinations and fitness evaluations are provided to identify members with high cardiac risk factors and those who need to improve their conditioning. As much as he or she may love the fire service, it doesn't make a lot of sense to have an overweight, out-of-shape individual with a history of heart problems dragging hoses and raising ladders.

The most challenging problem is how to reduce the fireground deaths that are caused by the inherent risks we normally associate with fighting fires, such as being caught or trapped inside burning buildings, running out of air, falling through roofs or floors and having parts of buildings fall on us. The best place to start is by looking at the circumstances that lead to these unwelcome occurrences.

Structural Operations

The U.S. Fire Administration conducts an annual survey of line-of-duty deaths to compile information on their causal factors and circumstances. The survey found that during 1995, only 15 firefighters died from traumatic injuries that occurred during structural firefighting operations. The death toll included 14 career firefighters and one volunteer who were involved in nine separate incidents. That is about half as many operational deaths as we experienced each year in the 1970s, when breathing apparatus was still reserved for special occasions and before the role of safety officers was invented.

Four of the incidents in 1995 involved firefighters trapped inside buildings by rapidly changing fire conditions; each claimed the life of one firefighter in New York, NY; Stoughton, MA; Hobart, IN; and New Kensington, PA. Three floor collapse incidents claimed the lives of six firefighters; four in a single incident in Seattle, WA, and one each in Mission, KS, and New York City. All six fell into fires that were burning below them.

Three Pittsburgh, PA, firefighters died when they ran out of air at a house fire. A San Francisco, CA, lieutenant died when in the garage of a large single-family home, the overhead door closed unexpectedly and trapped his engine company inside.

If we could have prevented the things that went wrong at just those nine incidents, we could have eliminated fireground accidents as a cause of firefighter deaths, at least for 1995. Was there something special about those nine incidents that could have been recognized? Are there critical factors that would have warned everyone to be particularly careful? It is for just these reasons that we need to thoroughly investigate every line of duty death not to figure out whether someone can be blamed for a tragedy but to learn about the causes and how to avoid them in the future.

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