Responder Safety: Traffic Is Hazardous to Firefighters' Health

July 7, 2008
Recent studies show that more firefighters die in vehicle crashes on the way to or from a fire than die in the fires themselves.

In addition to hazards faced by first responders at an accident scene, a study published in 2003 by the National Fire Protection Association found that vehicle crashes cause more firefighter deaths than fires. Motor vehicles, it seems, pose a greater hazard than flames.

While firefighter deaths on the fire ground continue to decline, the number of firefighters and first responders who died while responding to or returning from alarms are rising. Of the 37 firefighters who died traveling to or from an incident in 2003, 24 were involved in collisions or rollovers. Eight of those firefighters were not wearing seat belts and at least six were speeding.

For example, a firefighter driving to the fire station to respond to a flooding emergency hydroplaned and struck a signpost. He was driving too fast for the weather conditions and was not wearing a seat belt. In another fatal incident, the driver of a tanker lost control.

“These data tell us that many firefighters’ deaths are preventable,” said Rita F. Fahy, manager of fire databases and systems for NFPA. “We owe it to the people who bravely respond to emergencies to make sure they get there safely. That means proper training and equipment, and adhering to standards. Obeying traffic laws, using seat belts, driving sober and controlling speeds would also dramatically reduce this awful toll.”

Deaths in Road Vehicle Crashes

In the report, “What’s Changed Over the Past 30 Years,” researchers Fahy, Paul R. LeBlanc and Joseph L. Molis of the Fire Analysis and Research Division of the National Fire Protection Association examined trends in first response and fire fighting over the past 30 years.

They found that crashes consistently account for the second largest share of firefighter deaths overall. These crashes occurred during all types of on-duty assignments, not just while responding to or returning from alarms. Three-quarters of the victims in these crashes were volunteer firefighters. Fourteen percent were career firefighters and the remaining victims were contractors for, or employees of, state and federal land management agencies. More than one third of the deaths involved firefighters’ personal vehicles (37.7 percent). Another 22.7 percent occurred in crashes involving water tenders (tankers) and 21.7 percent involved engines or pumpers.

Of the 406 victims in the past 30 years, 76 percent were known to not be wearing seatbelts or using restraint systems. Only 13.3 percent were wearing seatbelts or using other restraints. Excessive speed for road conditions is a frequently cited cause of these fatal crashes, as are operator error, including failure to stop at traffic signals and train tracks. Poor maintenance has been a factor in some of the crashes.

Obeying traffic laws, using seat belts, driving sober and controlling driving speeds would prevent most of the firefighter fatalities in road crashes each year. Two NFPA standards are available to help fire departments establish safe driving programs: NFPA 1002, Standard on Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications, and NFPA 1451, Standard for a Fire Service Vehicle Operations Training Program.

NFPA 1002 identifies the minimum job performance requirements for firefighters who drive and operate fire apparatus, in both emergency and nonemergency situations. NFPA 1451 provides for the development of a written vehicle operations training program, including the organizational procedures for training, vehicle maintenance, and identifying equipment deficiencies. In addition, NFPA 1911, Standard for the Inspection, Testing, Maintenance, and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus, details a program to ensure that fire apparatus are serviced and maintained to keep them in safe operating condition.

Researchers noted, “A review of the almost 3,400 on-duty firefighter fatalities that have occurred in the U.S. between 1977 and 2006 shows some areas where significant improvements have occurred, and highlighted areas where much work remains to be done. The average number of deaths annually has dropped by more than one-third, falls from apparatus during responses have almost been eliminated, heart attack deaths are down by a third, and improvements in everything to protective equipment to emergency medicine have reduced deaths at structure fires.

“However, preventable problems such as the health issues that result in increased risk of heart attack and stroke contribute to making sudden cardiac death the number one cause of on-duty firefighter deaths. Preventable deaths such as road crashes where seatbelts were not used, and training deaths where adequate precautions were not taken, continue to occur.”

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