NFPA: Firefighter fatalities hit record low

Number of on-duty fatalities dropped for 3rd consecutive year in 2011

WASHINGTON — The National Fire Protection Association reports 61 on-duty fatalities for 2011, down from 73 in 2010.

Both years were the lowest numbers since NFPA began keep track of the deaths in 1977. More importantly, 2011 marks the third consecutive year of decreasing firefighter fatalities; the 2009 total was 82, down from 105 in 2008.

"We've had a couple of really significant decreases in the last couple of years, which we'll have to see if they can be sustained over a longer period," said Rita Fahy, one of the report's authors and NFPA's manager of fire databases and systems fire analysis and research. "Because they are random events, it is hard to tell what the drivers are. But we have seen a reduction in the number of structure fires over the years."

She also attributed the fire service's focus on seatbelt use to fewer vehicle-crash fatalities; there were four such fatalities in 2011 involving apparatus.

As many know, NFPA measures on-duty deaths as those that occur on scene or en route to or from the scene. That means that a Therefore, a firefighter who returns to either his home or station and dies a few hours later from a cardiac event will not be counted in NFPA statistics.

This results in fewer reported deaths than what many consider to be the total, as well as fewer reported deaths from cardiac arrest.

Despite this, cardiac arrest again was the leading cause of firefighter deaths in 2011. The 31 cardiac-related deaths made up 51 percent of the total. And while the number of cardiac-related deaths was at an all-time low, its percentage of the total was quite high — 41 percent of all on-duty deaths during the past five years.

Only four of the firefighters who died from a cardiac event had a known history of heart problems. NFPA had access to medical records and autopsy reports for 22 of the 31 firefighters who died from cardiac arrest.

Fireground deaths constituted 49 percent of the total, the highest since 1999. That number is consistent with the 10-year average for that category. Eleven of the 30 fireground deaths were cardiac-related.

One of the report's more interesting figures is that of the 35 volunteer firefighters who died, 12 — or 34 percent — had fewer than six years of firefighting experience. This high figure did not hold true for career firefighters, who by comparison experienced only two deaths for that level of time on the job.

Other figures of note: 7 percent of the on-duty deaths occurred at vacant structures, and four of the firefighters were killed at intentionally set fires.

NFPA's report did not take into account firefighters who died after long-term illnesses that may have had a work-related cause. The association acknowledges the need for including this information but says no reliable mechanism exists for tracking that data.

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