NFPA released its annual “U.S. Firefighter Fatalities in the United States” report today in coordination with a presentation by Rita Fahy, manager of NFPA’s applied research division, at NFPA’s conference in San Antonio. According to the report, a total of 64 U.S. firefighter fatalities while on duty in 2018. This continues a five-year trend of fewer than 70 deaths per year. It is also the eighth time in the last 10 years that fewer than 70 on-duty deaths have occurred; the death toll is half what it was in the first five years that NFPA conducted this study.
Of the 64 fatalities, 34 were volunteer firefighters, 25 were career firefighters, four were employees or contractors for federal or state land management agencies, and one was a prison inmate.
Overexertion, stress and medical issues accounted for by far the largest share of deaths. Of the 28 deaths in this category, 25 were classified as sudden cardiac deaths (usually heart attacks). While cardiac-related events have accounted for 44 percent of the on-duty deaths over the past 10 years, 2018 represents the third consecutive year that the toll has been below 30.
“While the total number of on-duty firefighter deaths has been decreasing over the years, we continue to see many of the same overall results, with the leading causes of these fatalities tending to be cardiac deaths and crash deaths,” said Fahy.
According to the report, the second-largest share of on duty deaths typically results from road vehicle crashes, with 11 deaths in 2018. The death toll due to crashes is only slightly lower than the average 13 deaths per year that have occurred in crashes over the past 40-plus years, but in the same time-frame, fire department call volume has more than tripled.
One firefighter was murdered when responding to a fire call in 2018. Unfortunately, Fahy noted, this is not as unusual as might be expected.
Fahy also pointed out that while it’s encouraging to see the overall number of on-duty firefighter fatalities continue to remain relatively low compared to previous years, the full firefighter fatality picture is far broader than NFPA’s data.
“This report only reflects deaths that occur while victims are on-the-job, either as the result of traumatic injuries or onset of acute medical conditions,” said Fahy. “Studies have shown that years spent in the fire service can take a toll on a firefighter’s health, both physical and emotional, and can also result in exposures to toxins that eventually result in job-related cancer, cardiac and suicide deaths that are not represented in this report.”
A comprehensive study that enumerates all duty-related deaths in a year is not yet possible to accomplish.
The firefighter fatality study is made possible by the cooperation and assistance of the United States fire service, CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the United States Fire Administration, the Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management of the U.S. Department of the Interior.