Rate of On-duty Firefighter Deaths Remains Steady

May 15, 2002
Despite scientific, technical and safety code advances over the past 20 years, firefighters today are dying inside structure fires at a rate that parallels their on-duty death rate during the 1970s.

A report released from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) analyzes 24 years of on-duty firefighter deaths, from 1977-2000.

NFPA's report questions the adequacy of equipment and staff at the fire scene, the sufficiency of firefighter training, the role of some aspects or types of modern building construction in fire development or collapse, and the rapidity with which building furnishings and other contents burn. The report suggests that one of the greatest the risks firefighters face is caused by their belief that the latest protective ensembles and equipment can shield them more thoroughly from fire than they actually can.

The analysis, conducted by Rita Fahy, Ph.D., manager of fire databases and systems at NFPA, shows that anticipated decreases in the rate of firefighter deaths during firefighting operations inside structures have not kept pace with improvements in personal protective ensemble, equipment, training and accepted incident management protocol. Structure fires in the United States have generally declined over the last 20 years, and this should have resulted in a greater decline in firefighter deaths.

"We are discouraged that the number of deaths of firefighters in structure fires has not gone down with the number of structure fires and with technological advances," said Gary Tokle, assistant vice president, public fire protection division at NFPA. "Dr. Fahy's analysis makes clear the need for improvements in training, equipping and supervising firefighting personnel."

NFPA's report prescribes full compliance with safety recommendations in order to enhance firefighter safety. Some of these recommendations include implementation of personnel accountability systems that track personnel - both by location and function - and that allow fire incident commanders to immediately locate firefighters at emergencies. Firefighters should also be aware of how far they have traveled into a burning building and make sure they have identified escape routes and that those escape routes have not been compromised. Danger signs like fires in basements, indications of potential collapses, flashover and backdraft must also be heeded, as should be low air alarms on self-contained breathing apparatus. The report also noted that attention to personal fitness and health are tantamount, as a number of firefighters have suffered heart attacks while fighting fires. The report also recommended that firefighters must adhere to state-of-the-art firefighter occupational safety standards. All recommendations must be used together as a system in order to assure success, the report urged.

The full report will be available in the July/August issue of NFPA Journal and includes NFPA's yearly (2001) breakdown of firefighter fatalities. For more information, visit NFPA's Web site at www.nfpa.org.

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