NFPA's Rita Fahy discusses findings from this year's firefighter fatalities report while addressing some of the report's limitations in capturing the full firefighter fatality problem.
At today's session, "Firefighter Fatalities and Injuries: Understanding the Problem," Rita Fahy, NFPA’s manager of fire databases and systems, covered findings from NFPA's annual U.S. Firefighter Fatalities report, released today. According to the report, a total of 69 U.S. firefighter fatalities while on duty in 2016. This represents the fifth time in the past six years that the total number of deaths has been below 70.
“When NFPA began reporting on firefighter deaths 40 years ago, the annual average was close to 150 fatalities per year. Over the past five years (between 2012 and 2016), the annual average has dropped to less than half that at 73 deaths, so we’ve clearly seen a significant decline in on-duty firefighter fatality rates over time,” said Fahy.
Of the 69 firefighter fatalities, 39 were volunteer firefighters, 19 were career firefighters, eight were employees of federal land management agencies, one was a contractor with a state land management agency, one was a member of a facility fire brigade and one was a prison inmate.
Although the largest share of deaths usually occur at the scene of fires, in 2016 the largest share of deaths (a total of 17) occurred while firefighters were responding to and returning from alarms. The next largest share of fatalities (a total of 15) occurred while firefighters were operating at fires. By far, this number reflects the lowest number of fire ground deaths since NFPA began conducting the annual study in 1977. It also represents the third consecutive year that the total has been below 25 deaths.
Overexertion, stress and medical issues accounted for by far the largest share of on-duty firefighter deaths. Of the 29 deaths in this category, 26 were classified as sudden cardiac deaths (usually heart attacks) and one to a stroke. The 26 on-duty cardiac deaths represent the lowest total since the study began in 1977. Cardiac-related events accounted for 39 percent of the deaths in 2016, and 42 percent over the past 10 years. There were also two on-duty suicide deaths (one by gunshot and the other by hanging), which fall under this category.
Fahy points out that while the annual report shows a steady decline in on-duty firefighter fatalities, a full picture of the firefighter fatality problem would include, besides these deaths that result from injuries while on duty, those that may occur years later due to long-term exposures to carcinogens, as well as physical and emotional stress and strain. The existing methodology also doesn’t capture firefighter suicide, which is a growing concern within the fire service.
“While the annual report accurately reflects steadily declining rates among on-duty firefighters, it doesn’t capture many of the deaths that occur off duty but that are ultimately the result of on-duty activities,” said Fahy.