Heart Attacks Remain Leading Killer of Firefighters

May 21, 2003
Most firefighters do not die in fires. Heart attacks and motor-vehicle crashes cause more on-duty firefighter deaths than smoke, heat, flames or collapsing buildings, according to an analysis of firefighter deaths in 2002 by the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association).

A total of 97 firefighters died on the job in 2002, roughly the same number as in each of the previous nine years, excluding the 340 deaths at the World Trade Center in 2001. But in eight of the last 10 years, fewer than half those deaths occurred within the building or land area where the fire was burning, known to firefighters as the "fire ground."

The majority of firefighter deaths - 51 - occurred traveling to or from an emergency, during training activities, during non-emergency duties (such as administration or equipment maintenance) and during non-fire emergencies (such as medical calls or motor-vehicle crashes).

On the fire ground and off, heart attacks are the leading killer of firefighters. In 2002, 37 on-duty firefighters died of heart attacks: 13 firefighters suffered heart attacks on the fire ground, eight while traveling to or from a fire or other emergency, seven while engaged in normal administrative activities, six at non-fire emergencies, two during training activities, and one while cleaning up after a tornado. In addition, two firefighters had strokes during training activities and one suffered an aneurysm at a medical call.

Motor vehicles were another major cause of death, claiming 29 lives. Twenty-two firefighters were killed in crashes and seven were struck by vehicles, all while on duty. In the most catastrophic incident, five firefighters were killed and six injured when a 15-person passenger van overturned on its way to a wildland fire. On average, almost one-fifth of deaths have occurred in motor vehicle crashes.

"The biggest life threats to firefighters are not what most people may expect," said James M. Shannon, NFPA president. "Two firefighters died from burns last year, while the top killer continues to be heart attacks. What's most troubling is that most firefighters who died of heart failure suffered from known health problems."

"NFPA has long had in place a standard, NFPA 1582, Requirements for Firefighters and Information for Fire Department Physicians, which lists the medical conditions that should preclude someone from working as a firefighter. These recommended precautions should be more widely used," said Shannon.

Other noteworthy findings in the new report:

  • One of the worst wildland fire seasons in recent years took its toll. Last year, 22 firefighters died while working at or responding to wildland fires or a controlled burn.
  • Firefighters older than 50 accounted for two-fifths of all firefighter deaths from 1998 through 2002, although they make up less than one-sixth of all firefighters.
  • Nonresidential structures (except for health and educational facilities) are more dangerous to firefighters than homes. The highest death rates occurred in vacant building and buildings under construction.
  • In 2002, no career firefighters died while responding to or returning from emergencies.
About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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