Definitions clash in annual LODD reports by NFPA, USFA

By Matt Kapko
FireRescue1 News Editor

Each year two of the most trustworthy organizations in the fire service take on the sobering task of tallying the number of firefighters who died in the United States while on duty.

Surprisingly, the numbers don’t mesh. In fact, they’re off by 28.

The annual reports produced by the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) and the United States Fire Administration (USFA) come to strikingly different conclusions based on those differences.

The USFA last week released its annual report on 2005’s totals, showing 115 line-of-duty deaths (LODDs), while the NFPA report, which was released in June, shows a total of 87 firefighter deaths. The gap was half as wide for 2004’s totals. NFPA reported 103 on-duty deaths while USFA reported 117.

Linguistics lies at the heart of the matter. Each organization bases its accounting methods on different criteria. "On duty" — a seemingly straightforward term — poses a definitional quagmire of sorts.

The USFA bases its criteria for LODDs on the qualifications set by the federal Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program (PSOB), said USFA spokesman Tom Olshanski.

“I can tell you that 87 is incorrect,” he said of the NFPA count. “That seems really odd because the federal government sets the criteria.”

But Rita Fahey, manager of fire databases and systems at NFPA, said the USFA also includes the expanded criteria outlined by the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act. The government has yet to finalize the new qualifications for benefits based on the expanded criteria that were legislated in late 2003, she said.

“Almost half the difference between our list and theirs is these people that are potential Hometown Hero qualifiers,” Fahey said.

The Act’s cornerstone was to establish a statutory presumption that public safety officers who die from a heart attack or stroke within 24 hours of a non-routine stressful or strenuous physical public safety activity or training, died in the line of duty for PSOB benefit purposes.

By contrast, the NFPA will only consider a LODD designation for a death caused by heart attack if the victim reported symptoms when they were on duty.

“We’re still using the same definition we’ve had since 1977 when we started doing this study,” Fahey said. “They have greatly expanded their definition.”

Accounting for firefighters who died in a calendar year other than the year of the accident that caused their death also contributes to some of the discrepancy.

“We count people in the year the injury occurred,” Fahey said, while the USFA tacks it on the year the firefighter succumbed to their injuries.

“Usually there’s one or two, maybe as many as four deaths from a previous year,” Olshanski said.

Related links:
* Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program
* Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act of 2003
* USFA Firefighters Fatalities
* USFA's full report [PDF]
* NFPA's full report [PDF]

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