We all know that firefighters have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, but what are the common causes of death for firefighters?
The general public isn’t always aware of why firefighters die or just how many deaths there are each year. I want to explain some of the causes of firefighter deaths to give a better understanding of what we go through in the fire service.
There isn’t a simple answer to why firefighters die. You might expect most deaths to relate to fire, such as smoke inhalation, burns, or entrapment in buildings.
This is actually only part of the story. we are at great risk from other hazards in more specialist incidents. There are also risks when traveling to and from emergencies and while training.
Finally, it’s important we don’t overlook the mental trauma and ongoing health issues that come with the job.
So why do firefighters die?
Here are some recent figures from the NFPA:
- In 2018, 39.1% of the 64 that died lost their lives did so at the fire ground. This figure was 27.1% out of 48 in 2019.
- There were 10 fatalities returning from the scene in 2018 and 9 in 2019
- There were 5 fatalities at non-fire calls in 2018 and 9 in 2019
- 11 died in training in 2018 and 5 in 2019
- The remaining 13 and 12 cases for 2018 and 2019 respectively fall under other categories.
- Rapid-fire progress and exposure to heat on the scene are key factors with 4 deaths from burns and 2 from smoke inhalation in 2019
- 26 of the 48 deaths in 2019 were recorded as overexertion/stress/medical. 22 fatalities were sudden cardiac death and 14 internal trauma and crushing.
- Accidents on the road are also common. There were 4 crashes and 4 struck by vehicles in 2019.
- Unstable buildings are also a major hazard. There was 1 structural collapse fatality in 2019.
- Electrocution is a risk too when dealing with incidents around power lines and exposed wires. There was 1 such death in 2019.
- Firefighters are at risk when entering the water too. 1 drowned in 2018.
- Firefighters responding to scenes of criminal activity or distressed victims could become victims of assault. There was one death by gunshot in 2019.
- Suicide is also a risk factor for firefighter because of the trauma and stress of the job. There was 1 recorded death by suicide in 2019.
When we talk about causes of death in the fire service, it is important to remember that there are many situations where firefighters are at risk. Accidents can happen anyway and there are other risk factors to consider more than just fire and oxygen deficiency.
Let’s take a look at some of these causes of death in more detail. In some cases, the fatalities are rare and the risks are minimal. In others, the risk is much greater.
Firefighter deaths on the fire ground.
In 2018, 39.1% of the 64 that died lost their lives did so on the fire ground. This figure was 27.1% out of 48 in 2019.
We rush to the scene of a fire to save residents and workers from harm by burning and asphyxiation from the smoke.
But, in racing into that fire, we put ourselves at risk. We might have plenty of protective gear and special equipment to keep us safe. But, there is always a chance that something will go wrong.
Firefighter deaths in wildfires.
We also have to consider the risks to life at wildland fires, especially as these fires become much more frequent. Almost half of the deaths recorded on the fire ground in 2018 were from wildfires.
The scenes in California and other west coast states show how deadly these fires can be.
Crews can become cut off from aid by fires or even caught up in freak fire tornadoes. There are also the risks that come from other threats like the equipment used and falling trees.
It is a completely different set of skills necessary to combat wildfires, which is why wildfire specialists need such expert training.
Firefighter deaths by fire and smoke.
Rapid-fire progress and exposure to heat on scene are key contributors to firefighter fatalities, with 4 deaths from burns and 2 from smoke inhalation in 2019.
These numbers are low thanks to the equipment used and the training required. Most firefighters will get out of the fire before they run out of air or have adequate protection from burns.
But, there are cases where this isn’t possible.
We also have to consider the risk of explosions at the scene. We can control a fire and minimize its spread when we assess a scene.
But, there may be additional risks from combustible elements. Fuel tanks on vehicles are a major problem when dealing with roadside incidents and car fires.
Gas leaks within properties may lead to both a risk of explosion and a risk of poisoning. Then there are the combustible gases and aerosols found in chemical plants and warehouses.
Firefighter deaths while en-route and returning from the scene.
While it is easy to assume that fatalities will occur on the job at a fire ground or other major incident, there are also cases of firefighter fatalities while en route.
There were 10 fatalities returning from the scene in 2018 and 9 in 2019. Collisions with other vehicles can occur as we race to a call.
Trucks can swerve and crash on tight corners and the high speed makes the crash even worse. Those that go out on calls in bad weather also have to consider the driving conditions.
Firefighter deaths on the road.
Firefighter deaths on the road aren’t limited to collisions in fire trucks. Much like police are concerned with distracted drivers, they present a major hazard to firefighters a well.
There were 4 crashes in 2019 but also 4 people struck by vehicles. It could simply be a car passing the scene of an incident on a busy motorway. There was even a case of one firefighter falling in front of a truck.
Firefighter deaths during training.
Unfortunately, there will also be occasions where firefighters die during training. This is something that all fire training facilities will do their best to avoid at all costs.
Skilled instructors and teachers should provide all the best equipment and instructions to those in their care, whatever the training exercise. However, we can’t always prepare for every situation. Firefighter trainee deaths can occur through
- Freak accidents in drills or with equipment
- Trainees ignoring procedure or instruction because they think they know better
- Medical emergencies
It is reported that 11 probationary firefighters died in 2018 and 5 in 2019.
Further stats from the United States Fire Administration show that 11% of deaths between 2001 and 2013 were training related. 50% of those were heart attacks.
This may simply be a case of trainees pushing themselves too hard or not being able to deal with the physical stress of the job. Almost one-third died from traumatic injury.
Every death in these circumstances is tragic and it is important that instructors do all they can to reduce the risk.
But, it is also crucial that new recruits understand the risks when signing up. They need to know precisely how tough it can get and how to act in dangerous situations if they are to head out on calls.
Firefighter deaths by medical trauma or cardiac death.
Continuing with heart attacks and traumatic injury, let’s consider these risks to life out on calls. Just because we have all the right training in place to handle a serious call, that doesn’t mean we are immune from risk.
More than half (26 of the 48) deaths in 2019 were recorded as overexertion/stress/medical. This means that it wasn’t necessarily the fire or the accident that killed them.
Physical stress during long and difficult jobs may take its toll. Over this period, 22 fatalities were sudden cardiac death and 14 internal trauma and crushing.
There are also the medical deaths brought on by incidents and calls where crew members either die on-site from complications or at a later date.
For example, there are cases of firefighters collapsing at the station with no apparent cause. This could be a cardiac issue, aneurysm, or any other complications.
>>Firefighters with asthma can join the fire service, but they must know that they put themselves in great danger by doing so. There was also a case in 2018 of pneumonia following a long job at a wildland fire.
Firefighter deaths by structural collapse.
Unstable buildings are also a major hazard. There was 1 structural collapse fatality in 2019.
When you consider the risks involved, it is surprising there weren’t more.
In 2018, there were 13 deaths at structure fires and 6 of those were due to collapse. Fires in abandoned buildings or buildings in disrepair will lead to risks of collapse due to unstable stairways and floors.
Parts of the building could crumble away and it may be difficult to predict the weak points. There are also risks in buildings currently under construction and in large apartment blocks.
Some firefighters have fallen through floors into basements. Others have had ceilings collapse on them.
The falls and the impact of the rubble can cause fatal injuries. It may also lead to entrapment in burning buildings, which in turn could lead to death by fire or smoke inhalation.
Firefighter deaths by electrocution.
Electrocution is a risk too when dealing with incidents around power lines and exposed wires. There was 1 such death in 2019 that was the result of accidental electrocution due to contact with downed power lines.
The firefighter in question responded to a crash involving a car, downed lines, and a storm. It was a freak accident.
With that said, electrocution is a big risk when dealing with crash sites, accidents, and fires in unstable buildings. We have to assume all downed power lines are live and watch out for all power lines when using aerial equipment around a building.
While there may only have been one recorded death in this manner for this period, we can’t underplay the seriousness of the risk of electrocution. Those that come into contact with live wires are unlikely to survive.
Firefighter deaths by drowning.
The risk of drowning will significantly increase depending on your location and specialty skills. Some firefighters may never have to go near water on the job. Others that work in areas prone to flooding or waterfront locations may deal with more water rescues and marine firefighting.
Water rescues can be highly dangerous, especially when visibility is poor or water temperatures are low.
All firefighters in these situations should have the training and equipment necessary to handle these calls. But, freak accidents can still happen.
Firefighter deaths at the hands of others.
Firefighters responding to scenes of criminal activity or distressed victims could become victims of assault and violence. There was one death by gunshot in 2019 cited in these NFPA stats.
He was shot responding to a medical call. You might wonder why a firefighter would ever come under attack while doing their job.
Why would someone lash out against the people trying to help them? Well, that’s an excellent question and is totally inexcusable.
Assaults against first responders are not that uncommon and firefighters are likely to arrive first at the scene of an incident or accident.
There is no guarantee that they will be greeted by calm, grateful patients.
Cases of aggravated assault, stabbings, shootings, and other violent incidents could still pose a threat if the attacker is on-scene or the victim wants to get away from law enforcement.
Then there are the drunk drivers that want to flee the scene or others too proud to accept help.
Firefighter deaths by suicide.
Suicide is also a risk factor for firefighter because of the trauma and stress of the job. There was 1 recorded death by suicide in 2019 when you look at those stats from the NFPA.
But, this doesn’t tell the whole story.
When you look at another report from the US Fire Administration, you see that they mention 103 reported firefighter suicides in 2017 alone.
They go on to suggest that only 40% are actually recorded. Therefore, this is a much bigger problem than the public is often led to believe.
Why are firefighters at risk of suicide?
We have to make a lot of difficult decisions in our line of work and see things that you wouldn’t imagine.
It is easy to shine a spotlight on heroic firefighters that save people from disasters and help out in a crisis. But, there are always those cases where there was nothing we could do. Or, cases where we question our choices.
Some firefighters that struggle to receive adequate mental health support may not work through that trauma. Stress and PTSD can overwhelm them.
How many firefighter deaths are due to negligence?
This is an important question that we need to consider carefully on the force. We can’t attribute every death to bad luck or freak accidents if there is someone else to blame.
All crew members risk their lives following orders and strategies from those in command. There is always a chance that these orders are misguided.
The wrong decision, a lack of preparation, or miscommunication can make the difference between life and death.
While it’s easy to be an armchair quarterback and say what you would have done in a given situation, being an officer on the scene of an emergency is highly stressful and a very difficult task.
Then there is the personal responsibility of all firefighters to watch out for themselves and those around them.
This means being alert to risks, handling equipment with care, and always using the appropriate safety equipment. New recruits that get complacent could end up paying the price for it.
Major incidents on a catastrophic scale increase the risk of fatalities.
The statistics and factors above relate to the traumas and risks that affect firefighters in their normal line of duty. They don’t take into account any major disasters and incidents that result in multiple fatalities.
Of course, the most infamous incident in recent memory is the attack at the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.
All you have to do is say 9/11 and everyone knows what you are talking about. This was a tragic day for the city of New York and the emergency services took the worst of it. 343 firefighters died that day. This is a shocking figure.
Other major incidents of note include the 78 deaths in the Great Fire of 1910 and the 21 deaths in the Chicago Union Stockyards fire.
However, there are other shocking statistics to consider about that horrific event.
Around 1 in 8 firefighters that survived the scene at Ground zero went on to develop cancer. The carcinogens from the dust inhaled from the debris gradually set to work and gave hundreds of emergency service personnel the disease.
In fact, it is now thought that more have died since from cancer then died on the day itself. This leads to my final point about why firefighters die. Sometimes our work and actions catch up to us in retirement.
Why do firefighters get cancer?
I’ve written an entire article on >>cancer in the fire service which you can read by clicking the link.
The high number of cases of cancer in the 9/11 survivors is alarming. But, it isn’t rare for firefighters to develop cancer in their lifetime.
It is actually the leading cause of off-duty death, with the International Association of Firefighters claiming that 60% of those in the fire service will die this way.
The simple reason for this is that firefighters are exposed to more carcinogens in their line of work than most other professions. These dangerous particles are released into the air when toxic materials burn. Protective equipment will help to limit exposure, but it can only do so much.
The range of cancers that develop is wide, with everything from lung and prostate cancer to rare blood and kidney disorders. Another alarming factor is that rates are rising.
There are concerns that toxic materials in consumer goods, which burn up in household fires, are to blame.
What are the other risks to firefighters after retirement?
Cancer isn’t the only health risk to retired firefighters. The mental health issues mentioned above regarding suicide don’t go away when we retire.
It is easy for depression and PTSD to continue as we get older. The transition into retirement can also be jarring for those used to being in command. There are also issues with alcohol abuse and retired firefighters, sometimes as a direct response to mental health issues.
Another factor that affects retired firefighters, and could actually end up as a cause of death is heart disease. The combination of the toxic chemicals in the smoke and the ongoing stress and overexertion can take its toll. A study by the National Volunteer fire Council in 2013 showed that 73% of responders were more concerned about dying of a heart attack than dying on call.
Firefighter deaths are a tragedy that comes with the territory.
When we talk about firefighter deaths and risks to life, these stats highlight the unfortunate cases where crew members lost their lives. But, there are also many more that are lucky and make it out alive. There are plenty of stories about injuries and near misses too.
In short, the question of why firefighters die isn’t a simple one to answer.
While there will be many fatalities related to the fire ground and its many risk factors, there are other dangers out there.
The training ground and journeys to the calls are also hazardous. Injuries at the scene, smoke inhalation, explosions, and medical incidents will all occur due to the dangers and unpredictable nature of many calls.
But, we can’t overlook the cases of drowning, electrocution, and other freak accidents.
Finally, we also need to talk about the risks of assault on firefighters and suicide and ensure that personnel gets the support they need in these matters.