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The Most Common Causes of Death Among Firefighters

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As I sat in my truck at the pickup line while waiting for my children to get out of school, I was scrolling through some social media, and I came across a news article posted by one of the several public safety pages. One of them was a firefighter fatality that unfortunately occured on Christmas Eve 2021. This firefighter was expecting a new born child the very next month, given the details, you guys may or may not have seen this article already. Extremely sad outcome, and it had me thinking of some of the ways firefighters typically get killed.

There are so many factors that can kill a firefighter just the same as anyone who lives on planet earth. With firefighters, Line of duty deaths(LODDs) are deaths that happen on the job, while many firefighter deaths tend to occur off the clock. Many firefighter deaths also occur off the clock. 

Some of the most common ways firefighters die are:

  • Motor vehicle accidents (MVAs)
  • Overexertion
  • Smoke Inhalation
  • Becoming trapped during a structural fire or hazmat incident
  • Getting Lost

 Let’s go a little deeper on each of these points.

Motor Vehicle Accidents

According to NFPA, they conducted a study in 2020 where they disclosed the amount of firefighter fatalities according to its type, age & etc. This study revealed that in 2020 alone, there were about 15 firefighter fatalities that occurred on the way to a call, or on the way back. 

It is sooooo easy to just not put on your seatbelt getting into the truck/engine during an emergency. You suit up, and just want to get to the scene and do what you have to do. What has even happened to me, is sitting in the seat, strapping in my SCBA gives the sensation of a seat belt, when truly I am not seatbelted in at all. 

I am guilty of this myself. It is very easy to have this false sense of confidence, that if the crew is involved in a collision while we are in the truck, that we’ll be alright, but can’t say the same for whoever we crashed into. 

The truth is that you will get tossed around in that cab. So many things you can hit, and if you are the one getting tossed around with or without an SCBA, you’ll probably seriously injure your crewmates.

Overexertion

A big misconception that I have personally observed from people who are not in the fire service, nor know anything about the realities of it, is that firefighting is not that physically demanding. No matter how in shape you are, the heat trapping effect that turnout gear has on your body will seriously limit the level at which you usually perform. 

Check out this video where Defensive End JJ Watt does a circuit with a fire department.

A quick and easy assumption to make is assuming how bad in shape these firefighters are. What you do not realize is that being fit to fight fire requires a drastically different approach than traditional “working out” consists of. Since I cater to big guys both in the fire service and those looking to get into the fire service, check out this post I wrote for the best ways for us to be in shape for this job.

My Story

Story time! I personally found out the hard way of underestimating this effect. When I first got into the fire service, I interned at a fire department where the interns would do pretty intense physical fitness (PT) twice a month. Having a pretty decent background on hard PT sessions between the military and the police academy, I figured that getting in shape for this would be like anytime before. I would go in, crush the strength stuff and “embrace the suck” when it came to the run. So I went into this workout without breakfast, because I was used to not eating breakfast. It would be just like every time I’ve worked out before.

The first part of the workout lasted about 20-30 minutes of a very tough circuit that consisted of pushups, burpees, jumping jacks and mountain climbers. All of this was with full turnout gear, including SCBA. Before this, I have never worked out with turnout gear, or wear an SCBA. So the weights of SCBA and the fatigue that came from all of my body heat being trapped, was all new to me and quite the shock to my body. I felt beat and drained, but again, I assumed this was just like every other time and that I could handle it.

We went for a 2 mile run, and on the way back, i went to stop for a second because I felt so tired, and just like that I passed out. It was such a terrible feeling, I threw up, my head hurt, everything was super bright, and I needed fluids on top of still being out of breath.

The point of me telling you this story is because my heart rate during the entirety of this workout, well above 140 bpm. When firefighters die from a heart attack, it is usually because their body is not used to getting up into that high 140-180 bpm range, and it cannot bring itself down. 

Ways To Overexert Your Body

I want to list some fireground activities that will easily elevate your heart rate to that level. 

  • Forcible Entry
  • Advancing a charged hoseline
  • Bringing up a roof ladder
  • Sounding floors, and roofs
  • Search and rescue
  • Lifting and moving heavy objects
  • Highly heated environment
  • RIT/RIC operations
  • Crawling through IDLH environments

All of these are basic fireground movements and activities that require a lot of energy as well as oxygen. This is why physical fitness is a must in the fire service, you cannot allow your body to be shocked by the level of exertion you are putting in during fireground operations, in order not to become a hazard to the rest of the crew.

Smoke Inhalation

Smoke inhalation is a very real hazard that many people do not realize just how dangerous it can be. This also applies to firefighters, many have this macho breathe in some of the carcinogens to build character type of mentalities. Carcinogens are cancer causing substances found in smoke, due to what is being burned. No matter how light some smoke may be, don’t breathe that garbage in. There is a reason you have an SCBA with your own air supply. Make sure to use it.

I touched on some toxins firefighters face when it comes to smoke in this article here. I will still touch on it here very briefly. Due to the contents found in modern homes and how they are built, there are less fires than in older generations of firefighting. The tradeoff is that when there are fires, it burns much hotter, intensely and spreads much faster than before. 

If you’ve ever had a fire pit and burned things like cardboard and plastic in it, one thing you would’ve noticed is the color of the smoke. It will fluctuate from white, to yellowish to black, all depending on what is actually being burned. During the burn, there tends to be little flakes floating about in the air. This is known as incomplete combustion, because all the material has not been burned. Some highly toxic gasses that are typically found in structural fire smoke are things like Hydrogen Sulfide, Carbon Monoxide and even Hydrogen Cyanide. A couple of inhalations of these gasses, will most likely end in serious injury, if not death.

Becoming Trapped

In this quick video, you will see how a firefighter quickly became trapped, and how another firefighter in the heat of rescuing the trapped firefighter, was possibly exposed to cancer causing carcinogens from breathing in all of that smoke.

As you can imagine, becoming trapped is extremely scary, and a real pucker factor moment. This is the reason that fire academies constantly train you to sound the floor or surface in front of you, before you step on it. If it is ready to give way, when you sound the floor, it will give way right then and there.

Let me take a quick step back if you are not sure what the process of sounding a surface is. Imagine you just arrived at a structure fire. As you enter for a direct attack, you MUST use your forced entry tools such as a halligan, ax or even sledge hammer, and give a forceful strike to the surface you plan on stepping on. If there is a hidden basement fire, that floor will give out where you sounded it.

Many line of duty deaths have occured from basement fires, because they are so dangerous, and also the floor has a tendency to give out that is above or on the floor of the fire.

Getting Lost In A Fire

Getting lost in a fire can happen very easily in a fire. You have very low to no visibility, and you pretty much use all your senses besides sight and smell. You can tell where the fire is by where you can feel most of the heat, and sounding the floor also helps you know if you are in an open area or in a tight space. Left and right handed searches so you can feel the walls and find doors.

In my hometown or Worcester, MA, there was a major fire known throughout the fire service that happened on December 3rd, 1999. The Worcester cold storage fire claimed the lives of 6 firefighters that night, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I was 7 years old, and I remember the mental images of the rubble I saw in person.

What ended up happening was that 2 firefighters were lost and could not find their way back out. When the RIT/RIC team of 4 went in to find the lost firefighters, they also became lost. Such as tragic loss that literally scared me away from the fire service for at least 20 years.

Conclusion

All firefighter deaths are very heartbreaking, and something that shouldn’t happen. When they do happen, we have to learn from our mistakes, and make sure this does not occur ever again. Some line of duty deaths are avoidable, such as those that involve firefighters who were killed during the impact of a motor vehicle accident and not wearing a seatbelt.

Keep yourselves safe and in shape. Your life literally depends on your fitness.

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