Our Muddy Fatality Data

Why we need to read the details

By Bill Carey

Originally published 22 July 2015.

If you have followed my writings about our on-duty deaths you would know that while I appreciate the work that goes into the process of defining and recording our fatalities, I constantly encourage you to read beyond the beige report we are given each year and look into the deeper details of how firefighters are dying and how these deaths are being recorded.

This month involved the death of Engineer John Whelan of the Denver Fire Department. Whelan had been injured after falling through a skylight while on the roof of an abandoned building on 28 June. He and his company were on the scene of a dumpster fire and were checking for extension into the building.

The United States Fire Administration recorded and sent out official notification of his death as the 47th on-duty death of 2015. It has the usual basic information but one item is worth questioning,


Notice that Engineer Whelan’s activity type is recorded as “Driving/Riding Personal Vehicle.” It is a bit of a stretch given the other activity types that could be selected (Ventilation, Support, Other) but one could assume that the selection is linked to the victim’s rank, in this case “Engineer.”

Here is the rub,


The activity type above, “Search and Rescue” is from Cincinnati firefighter Daryl Gordon.

More specifically, “Fire Apparatus Operator“ Daryl Gordon

FAO Gordon died on 26 March in a fall down an apartment building elevator shaft. He was searching for occupants on the floor above the fire before he fell. Engineer Whelan was checking for extension when he fell.

Do you see the problem?

FAO Gordon was searching for victims when he fell. Engineer Whelan was searching for fire. So why is Whelan’s death listed as “Driving?” A year or so from now when we get the final report, Whelan won’t be counted properly. Will he be among ‘Ventilation’ or ‘Responding’?

One might consider, in the wake of Denver’s loss, that this is nitpicking and pulling attention away. It is only that after we grieve that we should make sure that the final moments of our fallen are recorded properly and especially if they are to be part of a record, a number exalted that we do something to reduce. Look around; it’s not too hard to find someone either mistakenly or willingly throwing a number out as part fear and part solicitation that we change our ways. Whatever change and ways that may be.

We need to ask for better recording and end of year reporting so that we can have a better focus on how we are dying (see “Advancing Hoselines“). Until that happens, the majority will be herded into focusing on what is popular and attractive at events with little attention given to the low hanging fruit and the opportunity to make greater improvements.

Top photo courtesy of Unsplash.
Data images courtesy of the United States Fire Administration.

Published by Data Not Drama

Data Not Drama is writings that provide a point of critical thought about firefighter fatality data and education, line of duty deaths, and risk. The main focus is to encourage less risk aversion and better knowledge on the subject of firefighter fatalities in firefighters, fire departments, and fire service organizations.

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