How dangerous is firefighting?

September 21, 2014




On September 14, an "In Brief" item in the Lansing State Journal said Governor Snyder had requested that flags be lowered in honor of a fire official killed in the line of duty. According to the LSJ, he had been responding to an emergency call. The item cited a September 12 announcement by the Governor's Office.


The actual announcement said the 47-year-old died after responding to an emergency call and quoted the Governor as saying "Courageous first responders . . . risk their lives daily to protect our communities and state." Other media reports said he died of a heart attack at his home, and a report on the site of FEMA's U.S. Fire Administration said he died from an apparent heart attack at his residence approximately three hours after responding to a rescue/medical call.


I wondered if the Governor was wrong in declaring the death to be "on duty." Turns out, he was right. A report called Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 2012 on the site of FEMA's U.S. Fire Administration says

a heart attack or stroke is in the line of duty if the firefighter was engaged in nonroutine stressful or strenuous physical activity while on-duty and the firefighter becomes ill while on-duty or within 24 hours after engaging in such activity.

This expanded definition of "on duty" became law when President George W. Bush signed the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act of 2003.


The U.S. Fire Administration collects information on firefighter deaths in the United States and publishes an annual report. For this report, the United States includes

all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the territories of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam.

For the report, firefighter is defined as

career and volunteer firefighters; full-time public safety workers acting as firefighters; fire police; state, territory and federal government fire service personnel, including wildland firefighters; and privately employed firefighters, including employees of contract fire departments and trained members of industrial fire brigades, whether full- or part-time. It also includes contract personnel working as firefighters or assigned to work in direct support of fire service organizations (i.e., air-tanker crews).

It includes

not only local and municipal firefighters, but also seasonal and full-time of USFS, NPS, BLM, BIA, FWS and state wildland agencies [as well as] prison inmates serving on fighting crews; firefighters employed by other government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Energy; military personnel performing assigned fire suppression activities; and civilian firefighters working at military installations.

With that broad definition of U.S. firefighter, how many fatalities would you guess there were in 2012? Over 10,000? Over 1,000? Over 100?


No. There were 81 (3 in Michigan), and only 45 were related to emergency activities. Thirty-six were related to non-emergency activities which include

training, administrative duties, performing other duties that are not related to an emergency incident, and post-incident fatalities where the firefighter does not experience the illness or injury during the emergency.

Eight firefighters died in training, 4 of them from heart attack, 1 from stroke.


Twelve died after the conclusion of their on-duty activities, 10 of them from heart attack.


Fifteen of the 2012 deaths were related to wildland firefighting.


Firefighting is not even among the 10 deadliest jobs, according to Forbes magazine:

Some occupations that seem dangerous, like firefighting and tractor operation, are actually relatively safe; both of those jobs, for example, are less dangerous than being a car mechanic.

Car mechanic is not among the top 10, either. Here are the top 10:

  1. Logging workers

  2. Fishers and related fishing workers

  3. Aircraft pilot and flight engineers

  4. Roofers

  5. Structural iron and steel workers

  6. Refuse and recyclable material collectors

  7. Electrical power-line installers and repairers

  8. Drivers/sales workers and truck drivers

  9. Farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers

  10. Construction laborers

So who really are the "heroes?"


The report Firefighter Fatalities in the United States in 2012 contains a lot more detail than I have given here, including detailed accounts of each firefighter death (Appendix A).


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