NFPA Releases Firefighter Death Study

BOSTON - While the number of on-duty sudden cardiac deaths has declined by more than a third over the past 30 years, they still remain the leading cause of firefighter fatalities.

Crashes still account for the second highest cause, and training-related deaths are on the rise.

These are among the findings in a NFPA study of trends in on-duty firefighter deaths over the past 30 years.

As the document was being released at the annual NFPA World Safety Conference on Monday, funeral services were being held for a Boston firefighter who collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack last week.

There were 34 sudden cardiac deaths last year, the lowest in 30 years, said Rita Fahy, NFPA research analyst.

The review also showed that after cardiac-related issues (1,461 deaths) and crashes (383), other leading causes were caught or trapped by fire or explosions (207); structural collapses (204); falls or jumps (175) and struck by vehicles (135).

The NFPA defines on-duty as any incident that occurs while the person is at work. Researchers say that includes fund-raising, public education, and other non-fire related duties.

The USFA and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation utilize different criteria for line-of-duty deaths, on-duty and those who may be considered hometown heroes.

"...We have to agree to disagree," Fahy said.

The study also showed 32 percent of those who died of heart attacks on the fire ground had histories of previous health issues. Fahy said she was surprised that in many cases firefighters who suffered illnesses including cardiac problems returned to full duty.

The document also showed 76 percent of responders killed in crashes were not buckled up. "Seat belt, seat belt, seat belt," said Joseph L. Molis, another NFPA analyst.

Excessive speed for road conditions, operator error and poor maintenance were cited as the leading causes of apparatus crashes over the past 30 years.

Molis said while engineers are designing safer vehicles, the death rate will not change until firefighters wear seat belts. "We can't stress seat belt use enough."

Other trends include:

  • There have been 249 deaths during training, including 102 in the past decade.
  • Seven of those training deaths in the past 10 years were recruits.
  • Proportion of training deaths has been rising annually.
  • About half of the training-related deaths were cardiac-related.
  • While the number of structure fires has dropped, the rate of firefighter deaths at those blazes has not dropped as much.
  • Major causes of non-cardiac deaths in structures were smoke inhalation, burns and trauma.
  • There were 338 deaths of wildland firefighters.

Fahy said records also show there were 89 on-duty fatalities last year compared to 87 in 2005. Of those, 46 were volunteers; 23 career; 13 federal or state land management; five contractors; one inmate and one industrial fire brigade firefighter.

Other 2006 statistics show:

  • 43 percent involved deaths on the fireground
  • 22 percent involved other on-duty
  • 20 percent died responding or returning to alarms
  • 8 percent were involved in training
  • 7 percent, non-fire emergency.