Firefighting: Still A Dangerous Occupation!

Aug. 8, 2003
The fire service is the most dangerous occupation, career and volunteer, in the U.S. This is a reality. We cannot let statistics tell us different.

Firefighting is dangerous. We intuitively believe this but it is not true according to a recently published article that states "firefighting as an occupation does not have as many fatalities as other occupations" (Peterson, 2002 p1). Peterson's conclusion is based in part on a U.S. Department of Labor/Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) study (Clarke and Zak, 1999) that included firefighter fatalities from 1992-1997. When Peterson (2002, p2) used the same statistics procedure on the year 2000 firefighter date, he calculates that "firefighting is not even in the top 15 occupations in respect to risk of fatal injury."

When we read the articles we knew they were incorrect in our gut but the research and statistical facts proved them to be correct. Further examination of the research methodology revealed that the statistical foundation of these conclusions was incorrect. The fundamental error is based on the assumption that firefighting is just like any other occupation. Therefore, it can be directly compared to other occupations using the same normalization procedure.

The Peterson article and the BLS study compared death rates per 100,000 employed workers. They derived their output by dividing the total number of fatalities in each occupation by the total number of employed workers. The output was computed by multiplying 100,000 to arrive at the fatality rate per 100,000 workers. What this method assumes is that 100,000 workers in each occupation are equalized and the fatality rate per 100,000 employees can be reported.

With this statistic each occupation can be compared to each other. This method of calculating risk assumes that all occupations are equally at risk. But the procedure does not define "at risk." For example, firefighters have a fatality rate of 18.3 per 100,000 workers and roofers have a fatality rate of 27.5 per 100,000 workers (Clarke and Zak, 1999). When comparing these two fatality rates, it appears roofers are at a higher risk of death on the job, than firefighters.

The critical departure we take from previous firefighter fatality studies is trying to determine when are firefighters or other workers, actually at risk? This question may seem ridiculous but stay with us because answering it will change how firefighter injury and fatality statistics are analyzed.

Is a firefighter at risk when they are in the station washing the fire truck? Is a firefighter at risk when they are eating dinner or sleeping at the station? Is a volunteer firefighter at risk while waiting at home for an emergency call? The answer is no. When is a roofer at risk? This answer is much easier. A roofer is at risk when they are engaged in the job of roofing. So the new concept we are presenting is that "time at risk" of injury or death must be considered when determining the risk factor of any occupation.

Both of us have nailed shingles to a roof at least once but we do not consider ourselves roofers. We apologize to all roofers if we get these next calculations wrong, but we are attempting to illustrate our concept. If I am a roofer I am probably engaged in roofing activities i.e. on the roof, climbing, carrying, cutting, or hammering 6 hours out of every 8-hour day of work. Based on this assumption a roofer is at risk 6 hours out of every 8-hour workday.

Now if our friend the roofer works 6 days a week (we gave him 8-hours overtime) in a 48-hour workweek the roofer is at risk (engaged in doing the job) 36 hours. The hard part of this new concept is figuring out firefighter "time at risk." Is a firefighter at risk when they are on an EMS call? That is a FLSA question, which is beyond this article. Our firefighter assumption is that a firefighter is "at risk" whenever they are on an emergency call. This time period commences when they leave the station, lights and siren and continues until they return to the station, regardless of the type of emergency. Now how do we calculate this considering all the different fire departments from the New York City Fire Department to the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department?

We chose two extremes we have some connection to, Engine 10 in the District of Columbia Fire Department, Washington, DC (the busiest engine company in the U.S.) and the Vigilant Hose Volunteer Fire Department, Emmitsburg, MD (they protect the National Fire Academy). What is the connection? We attended LODD memorial services for firefighters from both companies. (We dedicate this article to firefighters Terry L. Myers VHVFD LODD February 15, 1999 and Anthony S. Phillips Engine 10, DCFD LODD May 30, 1999).

We randomly chose a 48-hour period from 0800hr January 30 to 0800hr February 1, 2003 and calculated the number of hours the companies were at risk. Engine 10 had a total of 37 responses equaling 10 hours of time at risk. The VHFD had 1 response equaling 1 hour of time at risk. The average of the two is 5 1/2 hours (11 divided by 2), which we rounded it to an even 5. We can now use "time at risk" to compare the two occupations. In a 48-hour workweek a roofer is at risk 36 hours and a firefighter is at risk 5 hours. The "time at risk" of the firefighter is ~1/7 (5/36=7.2) that of the roofer or any other occupation engaged in job duties 6 hours out of each 8 hour day of work.

Now lets go back to our risk factors from the Clarke & Zak article. Roofers have a risk factor of 27.5 with 36 hours of time at risk. Firefighters have a risk factor of 18.3 with 5 hours of time at risk. To norm the time at risk for each occupation we need to multiply 18.3 x 7 to get equal hours of time at risk with the roofers (18.3 x 7 equals 128). Firefighter's risk factor per 100,000 workers adjusted for time at risk is 128. This puts firefighters at the top of the fatality risk list equal to timber cutters/logging at 128.

Another interpretation error in the Peterson article is the raw firefighter death counts. In the year 2000 firefighters had 102 LODD, miners had 156, manufacturing had 670. So it looks like firefighting is less dangerous than mining or manufacturing. Again we need to figure out how to norm the work done by each job. Work output is one calculation method. In 2000 we had 1,708,000 fires so we can look at the number of deaths per fire 102/1,708,000 or 1-firefighter LODD for every 16,745 fires or 1/16,745.

Now these fires can range from a 4-alarm blaze, a car fire, food on the stove, or a trashcan for our concept it does not matter. Mining is reported in tons of material. So 156 deaths / 6,493,600,000 tons (the amount of material mined in the U.S. in 2000) or 1/4,162,564. The manufacturing occupation recorded 670 deaths with 230,819,501 units* or 1/689,013. Now, based on our research, firefighting can be reported as 41 times more deadly than manufacturing and 248 times more deadly than mining.

The fundamental statistical problem stems from trying to compare firefighting to other occupations, using standard statistical procedures. Standard statistical procedures misrepresent firefighter death and injury statistics. Another major flaw is that volunteer firefighters are not included in some workforce studies, including the BLS article from Clarke & Zak. Only paid firefighters are counted. The fire service needs to be studied under its unique conditions and research boundaries. "Time at Risk" is a critical factor in the fire service that must be included in any comparison to other occupations.

Finally, Peterson's statement (2002, p4) "Unfortunately, there will always be firefighter deaths because of the dynamic work of fire and related emergencies" is as unacceptable as the statement made in 1976 by a company officer "Firefighters have to get killed it is part of the job" (Clark, 1976). In comparison, the airline industry has no acceptable death rate. This is one reason flying is so safe. If one airline passenger was killed every 16,745 flights no one would fly.

The fire service is the most dangerous occupation, career and volunteer, in the U.S. This is a reality. We cannot let statistics tell us different. The death or injury of a firefighter is more than a number. It is a tragedy, that we can prevent. Will we? Will you?

*Manufacturing unit is identified for this article as the total number a cars produced in the US in the year 2000 (9,527,501) and tons of steal produced in the US in 2000 (221,292,000)


  • Peterson, David F. (2002) Firefighting: Risky business. Dealing with the risk of emergency response.
  • Clarke, Cindy and Zak, Mark J. (Summer 1999) Fatalities to law enforcement and firefighters, 1992-97. Office of Safety, Health, and Working Conditions, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Clark, Burton A. (July 1976) I don't want my ears burned. Fire Command p.17 (formerly published by the National Fire Protection Association)

David M. Ballard has been in the fire service for 12 years. He is currently a Sergeant with the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, Laurel, Maryland and is a certified Fire Officer I. He is also an Economist with the U.S. Department of Labor / Bureau of Labor Statistics, in Washington, DC. David graduated cum laude from Towson University with a B.S. in Economics.

Dr. Burton A. Clark, EFO is the Management Science Program Chair for the National Fire Academy and Director of an Emergency Support at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. . Burt writes and lectures nationally on fire service research and professional development. If you would like to contact Burton, he can be reached at [email protected]

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