A significant year in firefighter fatality data
By Bill Carey
Originally published 2 February 2021.
2020 ended with a total of 96 on-duty deaths per the United States Fire Administration. Details regarding the definitions and criteria used to determine and list our on-duty deaths are covered in an earlier article. This number should increase slightly based on news of firefighter deaths contributed to COVID-19 and the death of a West Virginia Air National Guard firefighter before the year ended.
The total for the year is impacted by the deaths related to the coronavirus. One third, or 35, of the 96 firefighters listed by the USFA died due to the virus.
Interior firefighting fatalities ranked low in activity types for 2020. In-Station Duties, EMS/Patient Care, and Other were the top three largely due to deaths related to the pandemic and deaths from heart attack, cardiac arrest, and stroke.
Advancing Hoselines/Fire Attack (including Wildland) was the fourth highest activity among the fallen. Search and Rescue was eighth and there were no fatalities listed under Ventilation.
Advancing Hoselines/Fire Attack
10 firefighters are listed as having died in this activity. Of the six involved fighting a structure fire five were killed inside a burning structure. There was one multi-fatality incident claiming two firefighters.
- One Missouri firefighter was killed in a floor collapse at a residential structure fire
- Two California firefighters were killed possibly due to fire behavior and/or disorientation at a library fire
- One Pennsylvania firefighter was killed in a porch roof collapse at a residential structure fire
- One Michigan firefighter was killed in a floor collapse at a residential structure fire
- One West Virginia firefighter was struck and killed by a beam at a barn fire
The deaths in California could be listed under Search, based on news reports of the incident and the department press conference. Initial details of the fire as well as fireground audio and the press conference indicate that the pair went inside with the intention of locating and rescuing anyone who may still be inside.
Advancing Hoselines: 10
Commercial: 1 (barn)
Cause of Death
First Floor into Basement: 2
Other: 1 (beam)
Porch Roof: 1
Fire Behavior: 2 (assumed)
The other four firefighter fatalities under Advancing Hoselines are:
- One Nebraska firefighter suffered a heart attack at home after a grass fire
- One West Virginia firefighter suffered a stroke at home after a residential structure fire
- One Missouri firefighter was found deceased at home three days after a residential structure fire
- One California Hotshot Squad Boss was killed in a wildfire burnover
Search and Rescue
There were three fatalities listed under Search for 2020. None of them involved the victim being killed inside a burning structure.
- One Minnesota fire chief suffered a heart attack the morning after responding to a car submerged in ice
- A West Virginia firefighter fell ill and died after removing an occupant from the site of a rekindle
- A Florida firefighter drowned after being swept by the current while performing a water rescue
There were no firefighter fatalities related to ventilation in 2020.
2020 ended, to date, with 96 firefighter on-duty deaths. Out of these 96 deaths, six were directly involved in structural fireground operations (attack, search, ventilation) and five were killed while inside a burning structure. Just like 2017, where there was only one firefighter death inside a burning structure, the fire service has experienced another record low in subcategories, despite the whole total being higher than the previous year.
The information presented is not meant to distract from the emotional toll felt by the families and coworkers. It is instead meant to remind us to look greater at the record of fatalities and in comparison, to previous years as well as be a measure of substance when used in discussions.
It is always important to reiterate that the discussion of the details in the reporting of these deaths is not meant to diminish the loss. Each number is a person mourned by a family, friends, and coworkers. What is intended in this and related writing is that it is important for the fire service to be aware of the details in our on-duty death numbers. Blindly saying that 100 or so firefighters die each year, as well as saying “we’ve lost too many” each time a fatality occurs is turning a blind eye to the data. By understanding the details in the recording, we can be more aware of trends, both good and bad, in our efforts to reduce these fatalities.
 “On Duty & Line of Duty: What Is the Difference?” Carey, FireRescue Magazine 2013
 “West Virginia Air National Guard Firefighter Killed in Fire” FirefighterNation 28 Dec. 202
 “Murder Charges for Teens in California Library Fire” FirefighterNation 24 Feb. 2020
 “Press Conference: Porterville Line of Duty Deaths” FirefighterNation 20 Feb. 2020
Photograph courtesy of Bill Carey.