According to a recent report by the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), 112 on-duty firefighter fatalities occurred in 1999, marking the highest annual U.S. firefighter death toll since 1989.
The report cites an increase of 21 deaths from 1998, and also indicates that stress and overexertion, usually resulting in heart attacks, continue to be the leading cause of fatal injury for on-duty U.S. firefighters.
"We need to recognize what has caused last year''s increase in fatalities, and take the necessary steps to reverse the trend," said Rita Fahy, NFPA manager of fire databases and systems, and co-author of the report. "Incident management, the use of accountability systems, safe driving practices, and increased attention to firefighter health and fitness are essential to making real reductions in on-duty firefighter fatalities."
NFPA''s report shows that 57 fatalities were attributed to stress or overexertion.
The second-leading cause of fatal injuries to on-duty firefighters was entrapment, which resulted in 24 deaths in 1999.
Firefighters struck by, or having contact with an object caused 21 deaths, making it the third-leading cause.
Of those 21 fatalities, 11 deaths were caused by motor vehicle crashes, and eight deaths were caused as a result of victims being struck by motor vehicles.
"The increased number of U.S. firefighter fatalities in 1999, and the diverse circumstances of those deaths are sobering reminders that fire fighting remains one of today''s most physically and mentally-demanding jobs," said Gary Tokle, a former fire chief and NFPA''s assistant vice president for public fire protection.
Tokle noted that in an effort to keep firefighters safer, NFPA has developed dozens of standards to protect them.
One example is NFPA 1582, Medical Requirements for Fire Fighters and Information for Fire Department Physicians, 2000 Edition, which contains requirements for an annual medical evaluation, critically important to preventing heart attacks.
Decreases in on-duty fatalities in recent decades have been credited in previous reports to improvements in equipment, fitness and training standards, Tokle said.
"It''s possible that changes in equipment and clothing have allowed firefighters to be more aggressive at fires," said Fahy. "However, the lack of on-scene accountability of personnel operating at the fire ground as one component of incident management has exposed firefighters to greater danger. Taking the time to re-evaluate departmental command techniques is an important means of reducing the risks with which firefighters are faced."
Since NFPA began reporting U.S. firefighter fatalities in 1977, the greatest number occurred in 1978 (172) and the fewest in 1992 (75).
Overall, firefighter fatalities dropped from an average of 151 deaths per year in the late 1970s, to 127 in the 1980s, and 97 in the 1990s.
by Virginia Sutcliffe