Pennsylvania Leads Nation With 17 Firefighter Deaths In 2004

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Pennsylvania led the nation with 17 firefighter deaths last year, a majority of which could have been prevented by a ``cultural change in the fire service,'' according to the state's fire commissioner.

Nine deaths resulted from heart attacks or strokes, fire commissioner Ed Mann said. Those and others could have been avoided, he said, if more firefighters ate better, exercised more and were generally more careful about their well-being.

``There has to be a cultural change in the fire service. A lot of our line of duty deaths are preventable,'' Mann said, adding that the state averages about 10 firefighter deaths a year.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said this week that 107 on-duty firefighters died in 2004, five fewer than the 2003 total. The states with the most fatalities after Pennsylvania were Kentucky with seven, and California, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey with five each.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which has the authority to investigate firefighter deaths and the ability to spot trends, has three open Pennsylvania cases from last year, one involving a church fire and two others involving firefighters responding to basement fires.

Between 1990 and 2003, the institute investigated 17 cases involving firefighter deaths in Pennsylvania, but officials there have not found any troubling patterns, spokesman Fred Blosser said.

Five of the deaths in 2004 were directly related to fires in the state's two biggest cities.

Fire Lt. Derrick Harvey, 45, suffered fatal burns fighting a blaze in Philadelphia in January.

In March, two firefighters _ Richard A. Stefanakis, 51, and Charles G. Brace, 55 _ were killed and 29 were injured when a steeple collapsed in a church fire. Firefighters thought they had the fire under control when the steeple collapsed at the 131-year-old Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Two Philadelphia firefighters died in an Aug. 20 house fire that authorities said was caused by a basement marijuana-growing operation that overheated. Capt. John Taylor, 53, and firefighter Rey Rubio, 42, died in the blaze. A man has been charged with third-degree murder in their deaths.

One firefighter died from being accidentally backed over by a fire truck at a fire house in Beaver County in August, Mann said. In September, a firefighter developed an infection from bacteria in flood waters in Allegheny County. And a retired firefighter was found with a head injury at the back of a fire truck in Chambersburg, but Mann said it's unclear how he hurt his head.

While staffing issues remain a concern during tight budget times for cities, those issues alone are not the reason for the number of deaths in Pennsylvania, according to Dave Eckman, president of the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association.

``This is a dangerous business and we know that from time to time our members will pay the ultimate price,'' Eckman said. ``That's simply a function of the job.''

Pennsylvania has about 2,400 fire companies, and most are volunteer organizations, according to the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute. Challenges faced by rural volunteers are great, especially since many are older and often at risk for heart attacks. ``It is getting our attention,'' said Tom Savage, the institute's executive director.

Because of the heart-attack risk, fire organizations in Pennsylvania and around the country are pushing to increase fitness efforts and get firefighters to be more careful when driving in cars, said R. David Paulison, U.S. Fire Administrator.

And Pennsylvania's fatality number, Paulison said, is a function of the fact that the state has such a large number of volunteer firefighters and firefighters overall.