Health and Fitness Leading Contributors to Firefighter Line-of-Duty Deaths

Researchers examining 6 years of firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODD) found that the health, fitness and wellness of the firefighters contributed to more than 50 percent of the fatalities.

The study was conducted using data compiled from 6 years (2000 to 2005) of verified firefighter LODD from four sources: the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the United States Fire Administration (USFA) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).

For each LODD, factors contributing to the death were recorded from federal investigations and eyewitness reports. The contributing factors were then analyzed for frequency of occurrence and clustering with other factors.

There were 644 cases with sufficient information to be included in the study. Frequency analysis revealed that the dominant contributing factors to LODD are health/fitness/wellness (53.88 percent), personal protective equipment (19.41 percent) and human error (19.1 percent).

"This is a stark reminder that many firefighter deaths are preventable," says IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger.

Cluster analysis was performed revealing contributing factors frequently occurring together. Four main clusters were identified with these contributing factors:

  • Cluster 1 included incident command, training, communications, standard operating procedures and pre-incident planning.
  • Cluster 2 included vehicles, personal protective equipment, equipment failure and human error.
  • Cluster 3 included privately owned vehicles, accidental and civilian error.
  • Cluster 4 included company staffing, operating guidelines and health/fitness/wellness. Cluster 4 alone (regardless of other clusters) was shown to be responsible for more than 44.72 percent of all firefighter on duty deaths during the years studied. Cluster 4 in conjunction with other clusters was shown to be responsible for an additional 16 percent of all firefighter line-of-duty deaths during the years studied.

Identifiable and Preventable

There are approximately 296,850 career fire fighters and 800,050 volunteer firefighters in the United States3. In spite of the improvements mentioned, many firefighters are injured and approximately 100 firefighters are killed in the line of duty each year. One anticipated outcome of "Contributing Factors to Firefighter Line-of-Duty Death in the United States" is to enhance the risk management capability of local governments by enabling fire departments to recognize factors that contribute to firefighter line-of-duty death and take action to control these factors.

According to the research team led by Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, assistant to the general president/technical assistance and information resources, International Association of Firefighters, 97.5 percent of all firefighter LODD occurring between 2000 and 2005 are attributable to an identifiable cluster of contributing factors. Approximately half of all firefighter LODD that occurred between these years are attributable to a cluster of three factors that are under the direct control of the individual firefighter and chief officers. "The information revealed in this study imposes a considerable burden on decision makers and fire service leaders as well as firefighters themselves," noted researchers. "It offers substantial guidance for shaping local fire department policy decisions and operational priorities."

Firefighters at Risk Despite Regulations and Safety Advancements

Researchers pointed out that year after year, there are notable advancements in the fire service industry.

"These advancements range from building code improvement to sprinkled buildings, from better protective gear to technologically advanced apparatus. Many profound advances have also been made in both laws and programs designed to improve worker safety and health for all workers in the United States," commented the research team.

As examples, they noted that since the 1970s, FEMA, USFA, OSHA and NIOSH have initiated and published numerous projects to improve the ability of employers and employees to recognize, avoid and control occupational safety and health hazards. Special projects and training programs were conducted for small- and medium-sized businesses, high-hazard industries, leaders of organized labor, supervisors, apprentices and others.

"The reduction of deaths or reduced frequency and severity of injuries and illnesses is unevenly distributed," said researchers. "While some industries and particular trades have enjoyed a reduction in injuries, diseases and death, many other occupations have experienced little or no change at all. For example, the fire-fighting profession illustrates the selective impact of past safety and health initiatives. Despite the advances made in safety and health areas, firefighters are still being killed, injured and diseased at an alarming rate."

Researchers noted that fire suppression and emergency medical services entails sporadic high levels of physical exertion, uncontrolled environmental exposures and psychological stress from observing intense human suffering. Firefighters experience inordinate numbers of line-of-duty deaths, deaths due to occupational diseases, forced retirements and line-of-duty injuries. Fire fighter fatalities and injuries occur at a rate one and one-half times those of police officers.

The 'Near-Miss Project'

A similar effort currently underway is the "Near Miss Project," supported by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the Volunteer and Combination Officers' Section of the IAFC and the IAFF. The intent of the project is to improve firefighter safety through sharing lessons learned about incidents of injury producing behavior.

"Near miss" data are being compiled for analysis to assess firefighter injury-producing behavior in order to alter the behavior and lower the risks of an incident. Once data are compiled and the analysis complete, results can be used to improve command, on-scene operations and firefighter training, thus reducing injury and LODD.

This system is based on lessons learned from the aviation industry, where near miss reporting significantly improved the safety record of the nation's air travel. "Near miss" reporting anticipates the same result as those discovered in the aviation industry, where the earlier the risk or error chain leading to a disaster is interrupted, the more likely the catastrophe can be avoided.

Likewise, the intent of "Contributing Factors to Firefighter Line-of-Duty Death in the United States" is to better identify the chain or cluster of events leading to a firefighter LODD, allowing recommendations for risk management strategies to interrupt the chain.

"Contributing Factors to Firefighter Line-of-Duty Death in the United States" can be downloaded here.

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