By Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief
TAMPA, Fla. — To give delegates at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Tampa2 summit context for improving firefighters safety, two speakers took a look at death statistics.
Gordon Routley walked delegates through a compilation of line-of-duty-death statistics for the past 10 years and unpacked what those numbers mean. Routley is well known for heading the commission that investigated and reported on the 2007 Charleston, S.C. Sofa Super Store fire that killed nine firefighters.
During the 1980s the number of LODDs steadily decreased until 1990 when it reached a median average of 101 deaths per year that held steady for a decade. Following the first Tampa summit, deaths continued to decrease until 2013.
During the past 10 years, the number of fires has dropped by 13 percent. That level of decrease mirrors the decrease in firefighters dying on scene as a direct result of firefighting activities.
How those firefighters are dying is changing, Routley said. Previously firefighters were becoming lost or disoriented or having issues with breathing air. Those causes have dropped significantly, but have been replaced by firefighters being overrun by fire.
Heart attacks and strokes are still the leading cause of firefighter deaths and are now evenly distributed between volunteer and career firefighters. This represents a significant drop in volunteer firefighter heart attacks and a flattening of career firefighter heart attack figures.
For career firefighters, the likelihood of a fatal heart attack peaks in their 40s. Volunteer firefighters suffer their fatal heart attacks in their 50s and 60s.
This, Routley said, is mostly due to career firefighters retiring earlier in life and volunteers often staying on well into their 60s, 70s and beyond.
U.S. Fire Administrator Ernie Mitchell told the group that firefighter health and safety was weighing heavy on him 10 years ago when he was president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “We’re in a different place right now, and that’s a good thing,” he said.
He praised research efforts to add weight to what many already knew about the relationship between firefighters and cancer. “We are now seeing empirically what we saw anecdotally,” he said.
In addition to the line-of-duty deaths, Mitchell said the on-duty injury rate is staggering. There are about 81,000 injuries per year with 25 percent of those from over exertion, he said.
Mitchell urged the group to continue pursuing solid data adding that it is difficult to get action from those in Washington D.C. who don’t understand the fire service without such data.