NFPA’s annual U.S. Firefighter Fatalities report reflects lowest total in more than 40 years
June 11, 2018 – The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released its annual U.S. Firefighter Fatalities report, which showed a total of 60 U.S. firefighter fatalities while on duty in 2017. This number represents the lowest total reported since 1977, when NFPA began reporting on-duty firefighter fatalities; it is the sixth time in the last seven years that the total has been below 70 deaths.
Of the 60 fatalities, 32 were volunteer firefighters, 21 were career firefighters, three were employees of federal land management agencies, two were contractors with federal and state land management agencies and two were prison inmates. Deaths among career and volunteer firefighters were both at their second lowest totals in 2017.
The 17 deaths that occurred at the fire scene represents the second-lowest number of fire ground deaths since the study’s inception, and the second consecutive year that the number has been below 20.
“Many of the all-time or near lows we saw in 2017 reflect a continuation of declining firefighter fatality rates in the U.S.,” said Rita Fahy, NFPA’s manager of fire databases and systems. “At the same time, we found some unexpected shifts in terms of when and where deaths are occurring.”
In most years, the second largest share of on-duty firefighter deaths occurs while firefighters are responding to or returning from emergency calls. In 2017, however, the second largest share (11 deaths) occurred at the scene of non-fire emergencies: five were operating at motor vehicle crashes; three were at incidents with wires down; one was at the scene of a downed tree; one was investigating an odor in a structure; and one was checking on a possible flooding condition during a storm. Ten of the 11 were struck by passing vehicles and one suffered sudden cardiac death.
In 2017, 10 firefighters were struck by vehicles, which is far higher than the average of four deaths a year over the previous 30 years.
“This is very different from what we usually observe in a year. Only twice before has the total been 10 or higher,” said Fahy, who also points out that crash fatalities, which used to consistently account for the highest share of traumatic deaths annually, are below 10 for the fourth time in the past seven years.
Overexertion, stress and medical issues accounted for more than half of the deaths in 2017. Of the 32 deaths in this category, 29 were classified as sudden cardiac deaths (usually heart attacks), two were due to strokes and one was due to complications from a recent medical procedure that developed while the victim was at work. The 29 sudden cardiac deaths in 2017, with onset while the victim was on-duty, represents the fourth time in the last six years that the toll has been below 30, but still accounts for almost half of the deaths while on-duty.
Fahy notes that while it’s encouraging to see the continued declines reflected in this report, 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 condition,” 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 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.
This 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.
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About the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Founded in 1896, NFPA is a global, nonprofit organization devoted to eliminating death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards. The association delivers information and knowledge through more than 300 consensus codes and standards, research, training, education, outreach and advocacy; and by partnering with others who share an interest in furthering the NFPA mission. For more information, visit www.nfpa.org. All NFPA codes and standards can be viewed online for free at www.nfpa.org/freeaccess.