A Massachusetts firefighter was killed battling a four-alarm house fire after helping two of his colleagues reach safety and searching for additional people trapped inside. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
NFPA recently released its annual “U.S. Firefighter Fatalities in the United States” report, which showed fewer than 50 U.S. firefighter fatalities while on duty in 2019, reflecting the lowest number of deaths reported since NFPA began conducting this study in 1977. In addition, there were no multiple-fatality incidents, which also represents a first for the report. Other important achievements include the lowest number of deaths of volunteer firefighters, deaths in road vehicle crashes, and cardiac deaths.
This year’s findings reflect significant milestones for firefighters while on the job, with many of the numbers representing historic lows. While one year’s experience cannot be interpreted as evidence of a trend, and we know already that the death toll in 2020 will likely be higher as a result of COVID-19, there are promising indications that real, sustained progress has been achieved in the reduction of deaths in some categories, such as cardiac deaths, structure fire deaths and vehicle crashes.
Overall, 48 firefighters died while on-duty in the U.S. in 2019, a sharp drop from recent years, where deaths average 65 per year. Of the 48 fatalities, 25 were volunteer firefighters, 20 were career firefighters, and one each was an employee of a state land management agency, an employee of a federal land management agency and a civilian employee of the military.
The 25 deaths of volunteer firefighters in 2019 is the lowest reported in all the years of this study, and represents a sharp drop from the annual average for volunteer firefighters over the previous 10 years (36 deaths per year on average), and far lower than the average of 67 deaths per year in the earliest years of this study. The 20 deaths of career firefighters while on-duty in 2019 is the third time in the past four years that the total has been 20 or fewer. In the earliest years of this study, the annual average number of deaths of career firefighters while on duty was 57.
Overexertion, stress, and medical issues accounted for by far the largest share of firefighter deaths, as has been the case in past years. Of the 26 deaths in this category, 22 were classified as sudden cardiac deaths (usually heart attacks), two were due to strokes, one to heat stroke and one death was by suicide. The 22 sudden cardiac deaths with onset while the victim was on-duty mark the fourth consecutive year that the toll has been below 30, but they still account for the largest share of on-duty deaths. Cardiac-related events accounted for 44 percent of the on-duty deaths over the past 10 years.
In 2019, four firefighters died in vehicle crashes, four were struck by vehicles and one fell from a moving vehicle. In the past, crashes of road vehicles fairly consistently accounted for the second largest share of the on-duty deaths, but the number has dropped in recent years, with fewer than five deaths in three of the last 10 years. Deaths in road vehicle crashes, which accounted for three of the four crash deaths in 2019, have ranged over the years from a high of 25 to this year’s low of three.
It remains encouraging to see the overall number of on-duty firefighter fatalities continue to decline, but the full firefighter fatality picture is far broader than NFPA’s data, which focuses on on-duty deaths tied to specific events that occur while firefighters are at work. However, the hazards of firefighting also include long-term exposure to carcinogens and other contaminants, as well as physical and emotional stress and strain. Meanwhile, we have also seen some troubling trends, such as firefighter related murders. In 2019, a firefighter who was shot at an EMS call represents the ninth firefighter murdered on-duty in the past 10 years.
NFPA's annual firefighter fatalities 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. 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.
On July 14 at 1 pm EDT, I will be hosting a free webinar to review this year’s report findings. Attendance is limited, so those interested are encouraged to sign up before space is no longer available.