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On-Duty U.S. Firefighter Deaths
Reach Ten-Year Peak



National Fire Protection Association
1999-2000, NFPA
Batterymarch Park
P.O. Box 9101
Quincy, MA 02269-9101


-- 112 Firefighter Deaths Occurred in 1999 --


Quincy, MA, May 15, 2000 According to a recent report by the nonprofit NFPA, 112 on-duty firefighter fatalities occurred in 1999, marking the highest annual U.S. firefighter death toll since 1989 (118). The report cites an increase of 21 deaths from 1998, and also indicates that stress and overexertion, usually resulting in heart attacks, continue to be the leading cause of fatal injury for on-duty U.S. firefighters.

"We need to recognize what has caused last year's increase in fatalities, and take the necessary steps to reverse the trend," says Rita Fahy, NFPA manager of fire databases and systems, and co-author of the report. "Incident management, the use of PASS devices and accountability systems, safe driving practices, and increased attention to firefighter health and fitness are essential to making real reductions in on-duty firefighter fatalities."

NFPA's report shows that 57 fatalities were attributed to stress or overexertion. Fifty of those fatalities resulted from heart attacks, which annually have accounted for approximately half of the total deaths. But, while the proportion of deaths from heart attacks has held fairly steady in the time NFPA has published its report, the number of heart attack deaths had been declining markedly, until 1999.

The second-leading cause of fatal injuries to on-duty firefighters was entrapment, which resulted in 24 deaths in 1999. Firefighters struck by, or having contact with an object caused 21 deaths, making it the third-leading cause. Of those 21 fatalities, 11 deaths were caused by motor vehicle crashes, and eight deaths were caused as a result of victims being struck by motor vehicles.

 "The increased number of U.S. firefighter fatalities in 1999, and the diverse circumstances of those deaths are sobering reminders that fire fighting remains one of today's most physically and mentally-demanding jobs," says Gary Tokle, a former fire chief and NFPA's assistant vice president for public fire protection. "In our effort to keep firefighters safer, NFPA has developed dozens of standards to protect them. One example is NFPA 1582, Medical Requirements for Fire Fighters and Information for Fire Department Physicians, 2000 Edition, which contains requirements for an annual medical evaluation, critically important to preventing heart attacks. Decreases in on-duty fatalities in recent decades have been credited in previous reports to improvements in equipment, fitness, and training standards."

According to NFPA's report, although on-duty firefighter fatalities have declined over the past two decades, the rate of deaths per million structure fires has dropped very little, and the rate of deaths in collisions per million structure fires while responding to alarms has more than doubled. The six-fatality structure fire in Worcester, Massachusetts, in December, followed soon thereafter by a fire in Iowa where three firefighters and three small children were killed, briefly focused the nation's attention on the continued dangers of fire fighting. The recent findings from NFPA's report may create similar attention.

"It's possible that changes in equipment and clothing have allowed firefighters to be more aggressive at fires," says Ms. Fahy. "However, the lack of on-scene accountability of personnel operating at the fire ground as one component of incident management has exposed firefighters to greater dangers. Taking the time to re-evaluate departmental command techniques is an important means of reducing the risks with which firefighters are faced." 

The largest proportion of deaths in 1999 by type of duty occurred on the fire ground (50%). Another 32 deaths occurred while responding to or returning from alarms (29%), 10 at on-scene non-fire emergencies (9%), 10 while performing non-emergency-related on-duty activities (9%), and four during training activities (4%).

Since NFPA began reporting U.S. firefighter fatalities in 1977, the greatest number occurred in 1978 (172) and the fewest occurred in 1992 (75). Overall, firefighter fatalities dropped from an average of 151 deaths per year in the late 1970s, to 127 in the 1980s, and to 97 in the 1990s.

NFPA has tracked and analyzed U.S. on-duty firefighter fatalities for nearly 25 years, and its annual firefighter fatality report has been used throughout the nation as an informational tool to reduce the number of firefighter injuries and deaths. The report is updated annually, and will appear in it entirety in the July / August issue of NFPA's member magazine, NFPA Journal.


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