The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has released firefighter fatality statistics for 1995. For the U.S fire service, the news is good. In 1995, and for three out of the past four years, the total number of firefighter deaths in the United States was below 100. Eighty-eight firefighters died while on duty last year, a 15.4 percent decrease from the 104 deaths in 1994.
The news for emergency vehicle operators, however, is very grim. Twenty-seven firefighters responding to or returning from alarms died in the line of duty in 1995, compared to 18 such deaths in 1994. This represents a 67 percent increase from 1994 to 1995. If that trend were to continue, firefighter fatalities while responding to or returning from alarms would surpass fireground fatalities by the year 2000.
What is really sad is that unlike fireground fatalities, where some deaths are not preventable due to the nature of the work and the inability to predict what a fire will do, 95 to 98 percent of all emergency vehicle accidents and fatalities are preventable. Who has more control over the fire apparatus than the driver? No one.
The leading cause in the overall fatal injury category has been stress, usually resulting in heart attacks, and 1995 was no exception. Being struck by or coming into contact with an object was the second-leading cause of death, accounting for 25 of the fatalities (exposure-related deaths fall into this category). Twenty of those 25 firefighters died in motor vehicle rollovers or collisions and one was hit by a motor vehicle. Nineteen firefighters died when they were caught or trapped, making this the third-leading cause of firefighter deaths in 1995.
From these statistics, it becomes painfully obvious that most of our time, money and training in the U.S. fire service should be spent on emergency vehicle operator courses and response safety training. But in 1996, as in previous years, just the opposite will occur. When will this dangerous trend be changed?
Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been a blessing in many areas of firefighter safety, one would have to wonder whether its training efforts are a little misguided. OSHA mandates that firefighters must receive training in hazardous materials and blood-borne pathogens and infectious diseases. Look at the NFPA firefighter fatalities and see how many firefighters have died from infectious diseases or contact with hazardous materials. Now compare that with the fatalities that occurred while firefighters were responding to or returning from alarms. Ask yourself, when was the last time your fire department went to a hazmat job? When was the last time your department operated an emergency vehicle? I think there is a flaw in the system.
How did 27 firefighters die last year while responding to or returning from alarms? Twenty-one of them died in motor vehicle accidents. Of those 21 victims, one was struck by a motor vehicle and 20 were involved in collisions or rollovers.
Twelve of 20 victims of collisions and rollovers were responding to alarms when the accidents occurred. Five of them were driving their own vehicles; in three of the accidents, the victims collided with other firefighters responding to the same calls. Another six firefighters who were killed responding to alarms were killed in five accidents in which the drivers of responding apparatus lost control of their vehicles. (I still believe that “the driver lost control” is a polite way to say that the driver was going too fast for conditions). The remaining firefighter, who was secured by a safety strap while riding the back step of an apparatus responding to an electrical fire, was killed when the vehicle overturned after hitting several parked vehicles and a curb.
Five firefighters who died in collisions and rollovers were killed in two accidents while returning from fires. Two of them, both teenagers, died when a train struck their apparatus. The other three were killed when two Forest Service aircraft collided in mid-air while approaching a runway.
In the remaining three accidents, a firefighter returning from paramedic training was hit head-on by a utility company vehicle whose driver was subsequently charged with vehicular homicide; a newly appointed firefighter, the passenger in a tanker returning from driver training, was killed when the driver lost control of the vehicle and it overturned; and a third firefighter died in a helicopter that crashed in bad weather while involved in a search for a lost hiker.
The firefighter who died when he was struck by a vehicle was crossing a highway to check on victims of a motor vehicle accident that occurred near a vehicle fire when he was hit by a police cruiser.
Emergency vehicle accidents constitute a chronic problem area. Three of the road accidents in which firefighters were killed while en route to incidents in 1995 involved collisions with other emergency responders. Two of the drivers involved in these accidents had been drinking before they responded. The high proportion of deaths in motor vehicle accidents again last year highlights the tragic waste of life resulting from a deadly combination of excessive speed, disregard of traffic rules, lack of training and failure to use safety equipment, such as seatbelts.
I urge the fire service to view this as a wake-up call and react to this as it did in the mid 1980s, when we had 130 to 150 firefighters die in the line of duty each year. If we work together to improve response safety in the manner in which we improved fireground safety over the past 10 years, we could have the same dramatic drop in response fatalities as with fireground fatalities.
I would like to thank the NFPA for the statistics used in this column. I would also like to dedicate this column to Firefighter Chris Sherman and the Sligo, PA, Volunteer Fire Department. Al-though the details at press time were sketchy, I’m told that Chris died in the line of duty on July 26, 1996, in an apparatus accident, and that a 17-year-old firefighter was injured. The apparatus apparently rolled over, ejecting Chris. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the injured firefighter, to Chris’ family and friends, and to the Sligo Volunteer Fire Department.
Finally, if you have accounts or photos of emergency vehicle accidents that could be used to educate brother and sister firefighters, please send them to me at Firehouse Magazine, 445 Broad Hollow Road, Melville, NY 11747. Remember, any accident accounts or pictures you send will be used to educate. They are not used to demean any person or any department, and the same can be said for anything I write in this column.
Michael Wilbur, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an FDNY ladder company lieutenant and a training officer of the Howells, NY, Fire Department. He is a New York State Academy of Fire Science adjunct instructor and has developed and presents emergency vehicle operations courses at the Orange County Fire Training Center and at national seminars and lectures.