Analytical Study Reveals Patterns in U.S Firefighter Fatalities

While the number of structural fires in the United States continues to decline, firefighter line of duty deaths (LODD) do not exhibit the same rate of proportion decline. A review of both NFPA and USFA Firefighter LODD annual reports, statistics...

While the number of structural fires in the United States continues to decline, firefighter line of duty deaths (LODD) do not exhibit the same rate of proportion decline. A review of both NFPA and USFA Firefighter LODD annual reports, statistics and retrospective studies and analysis suggest a noted change in the adverse trends noted for a number of previous years, but we are lagging in achieving the goals established by the NFFF’s Everyone Goes Home Program and initiatives.

 A recently published study and research conducted at the University of Georgia may provide insights and help explain why.

 Researchers in the UGA College of Public Health found that cultural factors in the work environment that promote getting the job done as quickly as possible with whatever resources available lead to an increase in line-of-duty firefighter fatalities.

“Firefighting is always going to be a hazardous activity, but there’s a general consensus among firefighting organizations and among scientific organizations that it can be safer than it is, “according to study co-author David DeJoy, of the Workplace Health Group in the College of Public Health.

The research, published in the May edition of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, examined data gathered from 189 firefighter fatality investigations conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health between 2004 and 2009.

Each NIOSH investigation gives recommendations directed at preventing future firefighter injuries and deaths. The researchers looked at the high-frequency recommendations and linked them to important causal and contributing factors of the fatalities.

The following is the Abstract from the Line of duty deaths among U.S. Firefighters: An analysis of fatality investigations, published by Kumar Kunadharaju, Todd D. Smith and David M. Dejoy.


More than 100 firefighters die in the line-of-duty in the U.S. each year and over 80,000 are injured. This study examined all firefighter fatality investigations (N=189) completed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for fatalities occurring between 2004 and 2009.

  • These investigations produced a total of 1167 recommendations for corrective actions.
  •  Thirty-five high frequency recommendations were derived from the total set: six related to medical fatalities and 29 to injury-related fatalities.
  • These high frequency recommendations were mapped onto the major operational components of firefighting using a fishbone or cause-effect diagram.
  • Over 70% of the 30 non-external recommendations were categorized within the personnel and incident command components of the fishbone diagram.

Root cause techniques suggested four higher order causes:

  1. under-resourcing,
  2.  inadequate preparation for/anticipation of adverse events during operations,
  3. incomplete adoption of incident command procedures, and
  4. sub-optimal personnel readiness.

These findings are discussed with respect to the core culture of firefighting. (Copyright © 2011, Elsevier Publishing)

Excerpt from the study introduction

The United States depends on about 1.1 million career and volunteer firefighters to protect its citizens and property from losses caused by fire. Firefighting is considered to be one of the most stressful and dangerous occupations. Each year more than 100 firefighters die in the line of duty and over 80,000 are injured (Karter and Molis, 2009; United States Fire Administration, 2009). The fatality rate for firefighters is three times worse than for the general working population (International Association of Firefighters, 2001).

Advances in technology, personal protective equipment, engineering controls, environmental management, medical care, and safety legislation produced substantial reductions in fatalities during the 1970s and 1980s; however, these numbers have not improved during the past 25 years and have been trending upward for the past decade. Without question, firefighting is high hazard work, but it is unique beyond this. In most high hazard work situations, the goal is hazard avoidance. In contrast, for firefighting, the principal work activity is hazard engagement, which is usually further complicated by extreme time pressure.

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