Firefighters and EMS personnel report to stations all over the United States every day knowing that it could be their last day on the job.
The U.S. fire service has done a phenomenal job in reducing line-of-duty deaths (LODDs), but there are still troubles that we as a fire service need to address.
As we consider what needs to be done, let's take a look at the U.S. Fire Administration’s recently released 2019 report on firefighter fatalities.
2019 LODDs: By the numbers
There were 62 on-duty firefighter deaths in 2019. Of those 62, 34 were volunteer firefighters, 25 were paid firefighters, and three were wildland firefighters. Thirty-seven of those firefighters died from activities related to an emergency incident.
Some additional data: 18 firefighters died due to activities at a fire scene, 12 firefighters died from activities at non-fire related scenes, eight firefighters died while responding or returning from an emergency incident, while five firefighters died while participating in training activities. When you add all that up, only 30 died on an emergency scene.
Because we tend to sensationalize the fire scenes, let's break down the 18 fire scene LODDs:
- 5 died advancing hoselines
- 3 died during incident command
- 3 died during search and rescue
- 2 during unknown circumstances
- 2 during support
- 2 during standby
- 1 during setup at an incident
We tend to focus on the structure fires, but it is interesting to note that of the 62 LODDs in 2019, only 17 of those were at structure fires. Consistent with other years, 13 of those 17 were at residential fires; the other four were at commercial fires.
You might ask, “Why is it that more people are dying at residential fires?” First, we run a lot more residential fires than we do commercial fires. Second, while in theory that means we should be better on residential fires, I believe what happens is that we let our guard down.
As you look at the report a little further, you see that 60% of those LODDs for 2019 were related to an emergency incident, while 40% were related to non-emergency events. The statistic to note: 36 firefighters died from overexertion. Of those 36, 33 died from heart-related events, with 32 of those being heart attacks.
We can directly control our own health, wellness, fitness and diet plans. We know this is a stressful business, and we know that the tasks we perform can drive the adrenaline that trigger medical events, but we also know we have a lot of work to do with our own health. Just look around your stations and, yes, maybe it's time to look in the mirror. We can do better, we can have a significant impact on most of our LODD numbers through improvements in our health.
Working to “Get Below 50” LODDs
So much of the strong work to reduce the number of LODDs and track the data comes from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) and the USFA.
The 2019 data provides a promising glimpse of the continued downward trend of LODDs. It is important to note that the 62 deaths recorded in 2019 is the lowest number in the 44 years that records have been kept by the USFA.
Also important for perspective: The Hometown Heroes Act signed into law in December 2003 provided for presumptive language that recognizes heart attack and stroke as line-of-duty death. If you follow the trends and remove the Hometown Heroes Act LODDs in 2019, there would have been 52 LODDs.
After the Tampa 1 and Tampa 2 summits, the NFFF and the Truman Fire Forum have made a fire safe America their focus. The NFFF initiated the program to “Get Below 50” – that's to get below 50 LODDs.
Some in our service say, "The deaths are inevitable, get over it." That's hogwash. We've proven that we can reduce LODDs. We're nearly at 50. We're nearly at the point where we can start fathoming having no firefighter deaths.
Yes, this is a dangerous job, and yes, you could say it's inevitable that there's going to be incidents where a firefighter may have to pay the ultimate sacrifice; however, it is not an inevitable causation for a firefighter to die in the line of duty.
So as we look to finishing out 2020, we need to remember that the word "inevitability" should have nothing to do with the expectation that when these firefighters and EMS personnel come to work that they're not going to go home; that should never be in the vocabulary.
Taking care of ourselves, looking at our own health, wellness and fitness, and making sure that we look out for each other. We know we can have an impact.
Are you up to the task?