Why firefighter deaths have hit historic lows
Fewer than 65 on-duty firefighters died in 2012, almost one-third fewer than three decades ago, when record keeping began.
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In 2004, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation gathered the major industry associations for a life safety summit that resulted in the “Everyone Goes Home” program. It created 16 initiatives to reduce firefighter deaths, which were widely adopted by fire departments across the country. In 2006 they started a seat belt pledge to address the high number of firefighters who died in vehicle crashes while on-duty.Skip to next paragraph
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Industry analysts also point to a decade-long emphasis on reducing firefighter heart attacks as a significant factor in the decline. Sudden cardiac arrest has consistently been the leading cause of death for on-duty firefighters. But in the past decade, industry groups have started awareness programs and now recommend firefighters be held to stricter health standards, including a medical evaluation before they are hired.
In 2012, heart attacks were still the leading cause of death, but affected a smaller number of firefighters than anytime in the past three decades. The 27 on-duty firefighters deaths of heart attacks is the lowest number since the study began and the fifth consecutive year of decline.
Experts say that in order to keep the fatality rate decreasing, firefighter health will continue to be an important issue, as will finding better ways to deal with fires that now burn faster due to more synthetic and lightweight construction materials.
“We need to look at standards of overweight and obesity. Firefighters come from the general population, and like the general population there is a lot of [obesity],” says Smith, who notes that firefighters who love their job but aren’t in top physical shape may resist getting help in fear of losing their jobs.
Mr. Willette, who ran two fire departments in Massachusetts after his early firefighter days, says that even though fewer firefighters are dying at fires, fires are reaching "flashover" points, where all combustible materials ignite at the same time, sooner.
“It’s a point of no survival for the firefighter or the occupant. We want to get firefighters there within 10 minutes. We’re now finding flashover occurring at the six minute mark or sooner,” says Willette. He advocates installing sprinklers in residential homes, where the majority of firefighter deaths occur, but says many homeowners and builders are resistant due to cost.
“There are tools to make the firefighters job safer and people safer, we have to wait for the public to accept that.”