Saving Firefighters’ Lives

BY KENNETH O. BURRIS, JR.

Younger firefighters die mostly of trauma or asphyxiation resulting from becoming trapped or overcome by the fire’s progress, or as a result of vehicle accidents.

The National Fire Data Center of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) is best known for its management of the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). However, its responsibilities are much broader than this single important mission. The Data Center’s responsibilities also include the collection and analysis of other data such as firefighter fatalities. It is through this important work that the nation’s fire service will move forward to address the goal of reducing firefighter fatalities.

The year 2000 saw 102 firefighter fatalities. Though this total represents a decrease of 10 deaths from 1999, 2000 is the fourth year in the past 10 years in which the total number of firefighter fatalities exceeded 100.

During the year 2000, firefighter fatalities included 38 career firefighters and 64 volunteer firefighters. Among the volunteer firefighters, 59 firefighters were from structural firefighting departments, and five were seasonal or contract members of wildland fire agencies. Of the career firefighter fatalities, 30 were from members of structure firefighting departments, seven were career firefighters of wildland firefighting agencies, and one was a career military firefighter. Ninety-nine of these fatalities were men; three were women.

CAUSES OF DEATHS

What killed these firefighters? In 2000, there was a dramatic increase in aircraft crashes, from which resulted eight firefighter deaths. Approximately seven out of 10 (71%) died while performing “emergency duty” such as fireground operations. Re-sponding to or return-ing from an alarm or incident accounted for 19 fatalities and re-mains the second lead-ing on-duty cause of death, as it has every year since 1993.

Tragically, regardless of duty type, heart attack continues to be the single largest cause of firefighter fatalities, representing 40 percent of the total.

What is abundantly clear from the data is that younger firefighters die mostly of trauma or asphyxiation resulting from becoming trapped or overcome by the fire’s progress, or as a result of vehicle accidents. By the time a firefighter reaches the early 40s, the proportion of fatalities resulting from heart attacks greatly increases, and heart attacks become the leading killer of firefighters above that age.

REGIONAL DIFFERENCES

Another interesting comparison to make for the year 2000 data is by region. The South and Northeastern United States had twice the rate of firefighter fatalities per million population than the West and a 33 percent higher rate than the North Central United States. The Fire Administration is currently involved in a longer-term study of firefighter fatalities that will be able to more conclusively show regional differences. It is on schedule to be completed in early Fall 2001.

Although this article represents a synopsis of the complete report, which is to be released in Fall 2001, it provides the data on which to base the following questions: Where are we with regard to firefighter fatalities from an historical perspective, and where do we go from here?

First, from an historical perspective, things are just unacceptable. When examining firefighter fatalities of all causes and duty types per 10,000 fire incidents, the year 1999 was the worst on record. When the 2000 fire incident data are available for comparison, the year 2000 will likely not be much better. Whereas fire incidents continue to decline, firefighter fatalities continue to remain constant or, as we have seen in 1999, actually become worse. A normal hypothesis would indicate a reduction in the number of fires would also translate into a reduction in firefighter fatalities, but this has not been the case.

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Where do we go from here? Firefighter fatalities remain unacceptably high, and we, the fire service, need to take action to improve the situation. We know the basics and the causes of what takes a firefighter’s life. We know the basics and the actions that must be taken to save them. Therefore, what we need most is the commitment, action, and constant attention to firefighter health and safety on the part of each and every fire department and each and every firefighter and the support of the fire service associations to turn this situation around.

FOUR ACTIONS THAT CAN SAVE LIVES

I challenge each of you to start making a difference with the actions that can have an immediate impact-actions that can be accomplished at very little expense in the way of dollars but can save many firefighters’ lives each year if they are constantly reinforced. Implement the following four immediate actions, and begin the campaign to eliminate firefighter deaths.

  • Use seat belts. Each year firefighters are needlessly killed in collisions that may have been survivable if the firefighter had been wearing a seat belt. In most cases, seat belts were present in the vehicle but were not used.
  • Turn on PASS device. Each year firefighters are lost or trapped in structures while wearing manually activated PASS devices in the “off” position. Failure to activate the PASS device is a continuing problem; therefore, proper use of the PASS system must be monitored and enforced during emergency operations.
  • Slow down. Vehicle collisions and rollovers are responsible for a number of firefighter fatalities each year. Many of these collisions result from driving too fast for conditions such as weather, road configuration, and vehicle configuration.
  • Have EMS on standby for fire incidents and training activities. Firefighting is extremely hazardous work, and training for firefighting can present hazards similar to those encountered in actual firefighting. The presence of trained emergency medical personnel will enhance the treatment and survivability of firefighters.

These are four simple actions that can have a tremendous impact and significantly reduce the number of firefighters lost annually. Working together, we can make a difference and reduce firefighter fatalities. The USFA will always have the reduction or elimination of firefighter deaths as one of its primary goals. Our stated goal for the next five years is to reduce firefighter deaths by 25 percent. I urge you to join us in achieving that goal. The alternative is just simply unacceptable.

KENNETH O. BURRIS, JR., is the chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration. He retired as fire chief from the City of Marietta, Georgia. He has an MPA from Kennesaw State University and a bachelor’s degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology from the University of Cincinnati. He formerly served as treasurer of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

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