Last year saw the lowest number of on-duty firefighter deaths in the U.S. since the National Fire Protection Association started keeping those records in 1977. The toll was 48, a grim statistic but still a sharp drop from the yearly average of 65 deaths.
That death toll included the lowest number of firefighter deaths from heart attacks (22) since the record keeping began. The association said cardiac-related events accounted for 44% of the on-duty deaths over the past 10 years, indicative of the overexertion and stress that often come with the job.
Fire deaths in general have gone down in the past few decades, thanks to vastly improved home-construction regulations, improvements in alarm systems, and the broader use of smoke detectors, which are frequently credited as life-savers.
But even as dwellings have become safer, firefighters in many places face the growing danger of massive wildfires like those that hit the American West, Canada and a large swath of Australia last fall and winter. Three firefighters died fighting wildland fires in the U.S. in 2019; the fires that swept Australia killed at least eight firefighters – including two American pilots – and almost three dozen people in total.
While on-duty firefighter deaths have gone down significantly, it’s still a dangerous profession. Firefighters are often exposed to cancer-causing or otherwise toxic materials at fires and accident scenes. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently reported two studies focused on cancer in firefighters found that they face a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses, and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths, compared to the general population.
Rita F. Fahy, one of the authors of the National Fire Protection Association study, said she was encouraged by the decline in on-duty firefighter deaths, but noted that’s only part of the story.
“Studies have shown that years spent in the fire service can take a toll on a firefighter’s health, both physical and emotional, and can also result in exposures to toxins that eventually result in job-related cancer, cardiac and suicide deaths that are not represented in this report,” she said.
No number of improvements in construction or firefighting technology will ever do away with risks and exposure of what, at its core, can be a dangerous and dirty job.