NFPA report reveals lowest annual firefighter death total since 1993

For the first time in three years, the number of on-the-job firefighter deaths in the United States has dropped below 100. The National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) annual Firefighter Fatality Report, released on June 7 at the NFPA Conference & Expo, reveals a sharp drop in the number of fatalities in 2009. Eighty-two firefighters were killed in the line of duty last year, substantially fewer than the 10-year average of 98 and down even more from the 105 killed in 2008. This is the lowest annual total since NFPA recorded 79 deaths in 1993 and the third lowest total since NFPA began this study in 1977.

Lion Connects often posts about firefighter health and safety, so the lower number of fatalities in 2009 obviously comes as good news. Of particular concern, however, is the continued trend of health and lifestyle-related fitness choices that lead to on-duty deaths. From the report:

“Deaths resulting from overexertion, stress and related medical issues made up the largest category of fatalities. Of the 44 deaths in this category, 35 were classified as sudden cardiac deaths (usually heart attacks), five were due to strokes, one due to complications from hypothermia, one to an aneurysm and one from a blood clot. See the section below for more detail on sudden cardiac deaths. In the remaining incident, a seizure caused a firefighter to fall, striking his head on the floor.

The second leading cause of fatal injury was being struck by an object or coming into contact with an object. The 22 firefighters killed included 14 in motor vehicle crashes and four struck by motor vehicles. Those deaths are discussed in more detail in a separate section of this report. Two firefighters were struck by falling trees. One firefighter was struck by debris when a dumpster exploded. One firefighter was electrocuted at a motor vehicle crash when he came into contact with a downed power line when he slipped or fell while trying to avoid walking into it.

Nine firefighters were killed in jumps or falls. Two fell through the floor at a structure fire, two fell from an elevated aerial platform during training, one fell on ice, one fell from the back of a responding rescue vehicle, one fell off a parked fire department vehicle after a parade, one fell while rappelling from a helicopter, and one jumped from a third-story window when trapped by intense fire conditions.

The second leading cause of fatal injury was being struck by an object or coming into contact with an object. The 22 firefighters killed included 14 in motor vehicle crashes and four struck by motor vehicles. Those deaths are discussed in more detail in a separate section of this report. Two firefighters were struck by falling trees. One firefighter was struck by debris when a dumpster exploded. One firefighter was electrocuted at a motor vehicle crash when he came into contact with a downed power line when he slipped or fell while trying to avoid walking into it.Nine firefighters were killed in jumps or falls. Two fell through the floor at a structure fire, two fell from an elevated aerial platform during training, one fell on ice, one fell from the back of a responding rescue vehicle, one fell off a parked fire department vehicle after a parade, one fell while rappelling from a helicopter, and one jumped from a third-story window when trapped by intense fire conditions.

Overall, sudden cardiac death is the number one cause of on-duty firefighter fatalities in the U.S. and almost always accounts for the largest share of deaths in any given year. (These are cases where the onset of symptoms occurred while the victim was on-duty and death occurred immediately or shortly thereafter.) The number of deaths in this category has fallen significantly since the early years of this study. From 1977 through 1986, an average of 60 on-duty firefighters a year suffered sudden cardiac deaths. The average fell to 44 a year in the 1990s and to under 40 in the past decade. In spite of this reduction, sudden cardiac death still accounted for 39 percent of the on-duty deaths in the last five years, and 42 percent in 2009 alone.

For 19 of the 35 victims of sudden cardiac events in 2009, post mortem medical documentation showed that eight had severe arteriosclerotic heart disease, five were hypertensive, two were diabetic, and eight were reported to have had prior heart problems — such as prior heart attacks, bypass surgery or angioplasty/stent placement. (Some of the victims had more than one condition.) Other risk factors were represented among the victims of sudden cardiac death, including obesity, smoking and family history. Medical documentation was not available for the other 16 firefighters.

Information on developing a wellness-fitness program is available from other organizations, for example, the IAFC/IAFF Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative (http://www.iafc.org/associations/4685/files/healthWell_WFI3rdEdition.pdf) and the National Volunteer Fire Council’s Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program (http://www.healthy-firefighter.org). The Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program was launched in 2003 to address heart attack prevention for all firefighters and EMS personnel, through fitness, nutrition and health awareness.”

The full report is available at NFPA’s website (http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files//PDF/osfff.pdf).