Is It Getting More Dangerous to Be a Firefighter?

Amid the scene of another mass shooting, the dangers of being a first responder were once again on full display for millions to see on live television. Dozens of firefighters along with police, paramedics and other emergency personnel were called to the scene of an active-shooter to begin assisting victims with the gunman still on the loose.

While not a daily occurrence, such events are certainly happening with increased frequency – and on a larger scale. Mass shootings represent just a fraction of the type of crime scenes that emergency personnel respond to, others include everything from gang activity to domestic violence, all of which first responders face the potential threat of gun violence while on duty. And what about bomb threats and other acts of terrorism, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, industrial accidents with noxious chemicals, and auto-accidents rife with leaking fuel?

Firefighters, Then & Now

There was once a time when firefighters were generally thought of as blue-collar workers who risked our lives to save people from burning buildings. Over the years, the size and complexity of those structures grew, along with the roles we played in assisting citizens with all manners of dangerous situations.

A job in the fire service has historically been regarded as one of the most dangerous of all careers. Due to the evolution of our profession and the emergence of new types of threats, one might assume that things have only gotten worse. But recent statistics from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) suggests this may not actually be the case.

Recent Study Suggests Firefighting Not Among America’s Most Dangerous Jobs

24/7 Wall Street recently reviewed fatal injury rates for 62 occupations from the BLS’ 2016 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries and firefighters were not listed in the Top 25 professions. In fact, they ranked behind farmers, landscapers, HVAC installers, painters, and even athletes, coaches and umpires. Keep in mind, the injury rates that the rankings were based on were calculated as the total number of fatal occupational injuries per 100,000 full-time workers, annually.

So is it getting more dangerous to be a firefighter these days or just the opposite?

According to the 24/7 Wall St. analysis which was published in USA Today, since congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 and established the Occupation Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to ensure safety standards in the workplace, all Americans have enjoyed much safer working conditions. In 1970, there were 14,000 total workplace fatalities while there were less than 5,200 in 2016. Today, the average fatality rate for all American workers across both public and private sectors is 3.6 deaths for every 100,000 full-time workers.

Some professions, such as writers, have fatality rates that are near-zero. For other industries, however, regardless of what kinds of safety standards are implemented, there are still numerous fatal accidents; in some cases, with rates as much as 20 times higher than average! The most dangerous jobs typically involve frequent use of heavy equipment, close proximity to hazardous substances or working in potentially dangerous environments.

According to the study, the three most dangerous jobs in America were:

1) Logging workers with 135.9 fatalities per 100,000 workers (Most common accident: Struck by object)

2) Fishers and related fishing workers with 86.0 fatalities per 100,000 workers (Most common accidents: NA. The report noted that these workers were often in locations where they could not receive adequate medical care when stricken with any variety of ailments.)

3) Aircraft pilots and flight engineers: 55.5 fatalities per 100,000 workers. (Most common accidents: Over-exertion and bodily reaction. The report noted that each death in 2016 was due to an accident while in transit.)

Some first responders made the list: police and sheriff’s patrol officers came in at #14 with 14.6 fatalities per 100,000 workers. The most common accident was intentional injury by another person.

A Deeper Look at the Numbers

So, where did firefighters land?

Well, again – we didn’t even make the published top 25 which ended with heating, air conditioning and refrigeration mechanics/installers at #25 with 8.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers.

Based upon the data, in 2016 there were 1,217,400 firefighters (split roughly 30% career/70% volunteers). That year, there were 69 total deaths in the United States. Using the same formula, one could assume the fatality rate per 100,000 firefighters to be 5.7 per 100.000 workers – about 58% higher than the national average.

Ultimately, one has to look past the numbers or at least deeper into them. In 2017, for instance, there were 93 firefighter fatalities as recorded by the United States Fire Administration (USFA). Assuming there were about 1,300,000 firefighters last year, the fatality rate would have risen to 7.15 per 100,000 workers.

And what about 2001, when 443 firefighters perished including 340 at the World Trade Center on September 11th? The fatality rate that year was 41 per 100,000 workers, a 1,038% increase over the national average.

In some reporting, 2011 statistics are set aside for the purpose of illustrating long-term trends. But can that really make for apples-to-apples comparisons? No, it can’t. Because the inherent nature of a career in the fire service is such that one really never knows what any day may bring. And while the same may hold true for every profession, it’s safe to say (no pun intended), that the universe of possibilities and likelihood of life-threatening possibilities are significantly greater for emergency personnel.

Good News

On a positive note, even with 9/11 included, and the adoption of the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act of 2004, which resulted in an additional 16 firefighter heart attack or stroke deaths on average each year being recognized as in the line of duty; the trend line for fatalities in the fire service has been steadily falling (from 129 fatalities each year from 1990 – 2003, to 102 per year from 2004- 2016).

Improved processes and technology, better equipment and apparatus, and data-backed predictive analysis have all played a hand in making our jobs safer. While we all willingly put our lives on the line, the more we can reduce our own risk, the more effective we can be at saving the lives of others. That, after all, is where our real focus has always been, and will continue to be.




Workplace Fatalities – The 25 Most Dangerous Jobs in America:

Firefighter Fatalities in the U.S. in 2016 –

US Fire Department Profile:

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