Firefighter fatalities: What the numbers mean

To understand the U.S. Fire Administration's report on 2012 on-duty firefighter deaths, you need to look deep into the numbers and their trends

Every firefighter fatality is devastating to the survivors who are left behind. That fact is never too far from the minds of our nation's fire service. In less than two weeks our nation will honor the sacrifices made by those who gave their lives in the line of duty in 2012.

This past week the U.S. Fire Administration released the 2012 Firefighter Fatality Report, which shows 81 firefighters died while on-duty. This figure includes 12 firefighters who died under circumstances that were part of the inclusion criteria changes resulting from the Hometown Heroes Act.  

While the total number of firefighter fatalities in the USFA report differs from those of other fire service organizations, due in part to different reporting criteria, it is very clear that the number of firefighters who died while serving their communities is decreasing.

At first blush, this is exciting news. This is exactly what we had hoped for in 2004 when the National Firefighter Life Safety Summit was convened in Tampa, Fla. It illustrated that better fitness, training and education, combined with accepting personal responsibility for safe practices is paying off.

Trending data
Certainly over the past three years, the numbers have decreased and this is attributable to the efforts of all the national fire service organizations. But as I carefully studied the report and compared the statistical breakdowns of deaths between 2009 and 2012, I began to wonder if the messages are really getting through.

It's widely accepted that firefighting is a strenuous activity and requires physical strength and stamina. It's often assumed that firefighters are — or should be — in peak physical condition.

Interestingly, the USFA report clearly shows that in the past three years, the leading cause of death was overwhelmingly, and consistently stress or overexertion.

Last year, 39 firefighters died from heart attack, three from a cardiovascular event or stroke, two from heat exhaustion and one from aneurysm. When I looked at the statistics for stress or overexertion from 2011 and 2010, the numbers were almost the same for heart attack: 48 of the 50 in 2011 and in 2010, 50 out of 55.

Driver safety
As I read on, I realized the second leading cause of death was traumatic incidents. But this did not completely equate to structural collapse during an incident.

Of the 28 firefighters who suffered traumatic fatalities in 2012, 18 were the result of vehicular crashes. While six of those who died were on firefighting aircraft, the other 12 were either in department or personal vehicles.

They were responding to or from an incident, and excessive speed or not using seatbelts were contributing factors. Other than 2011, when only five line-of-duty deaths were attributed to crashes, these figures are consistent over the past five years.

It is also apparent that the victims of the fatal crashes are typically under the age of 30. We don't know the circumstances of each and every fatality. However, in an attempt to learn from these incidents we should consider whether it's inexperience or a youthful rush of adrenaline that may have contributed to these crashes.

Regardless of circumstances, we need to help our younger firefighters understand that while responding quickly is important, doing so responsibly is critical. Driving defensively, using sound judgment, obeying traffic laws and using equipment — such as seatbelts — is part of doing their job.

The next step
The fact remains that more than half of all the firefighter fatalities in a given year are the result of heart attacks or vehicular crashes, both of which are preventable.

Our fire service leadership and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation does its best to provide clear, actionable information about personal health, safety and accountability through the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives. Each year we hope we're making progress. And each year we see similar outcomes.

I know that there will be years like 2013, when despite doing everything to the best of their abilities, tragedies will occur.

But, I am cautiously optimistic that every year more firefighters will take the time to buckle up, adopt a healthier lifestyle, quit smoking and participate in regular training so that they can do their jobs to the very best of their abilities and reduce the number of firefighters who die while serving their communities.

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