Not Really a Low Year

A lot of huzzah for the grand total
A lot of misunderstanding of the details

By Bill Carey

Originally published 2 January 2020.

2019 has ended with the lowest number, 57, of firefighter on-duty deaths since recording began by the United States Fire Administration (USFA) in 1976[1].  Prior to 2019 the lowest number recorded was 77 in 1992.  This number is prior to 2003 when the Hometown Heroes Act was introduced[2].  The year with the lowest number since 2003 was 2011 with 65 fatalities, 22 under the Hometown Heroes Act, for a total of 87.

There were seven fatalities in 2019 included by the Hometown Heroes Act making it the second-lowest number recorded.  The lowest of that selection was one in 2003.

2019 is also significant in there were no multiple fatality incidents. The USFA data summary also states there was only one fatality involving a wildland incident but the narratives of some on-duty deaths contrasts with this.


The definitions and criteria for the USFA data have not changed.  They basically cover an individual defined as a firefighter in an organized fire department across the United States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam.  The definitions also include career and volunteer firefighters and the various organizations in which they are employed.  “On-duty” covers actions that the victim performed as required by the department[3].

Firefighting Deaths

Previous articles and presentations about line of duty death data has made a distinction of those deaths that occurred inside or within a burning structure. The activity identified in these deaths includes fire attack, search, and ventilation. As always stated, the intent is to make a clearer picture of the data presented and not to show favor of one group of fatalities over another. 

Seven firefighters died in 2019 inside, or within, a burning structure. There are five listed by the USFA under ‘Advancing Hoselines.’ One is listed under ‘Scene Safety’ and one is listed under ‘Other.’  The one listed as ‘Other’ could rightfully be listed under ‘Ventilation” as the victim fell from the roof of a burning apartment building while attempting to gain access to the fire[4].  There were no interior fire deaths under ‘Search and Rescue.’

Advancing Hoselines: 5

Iowa. Victim killed in an explosion of a grain silo the next day after the incident began

Maine. Victim killed in a fire behavior event (flashover) in an apartment fire

Illinois. Victim killed in a collapse in a fire in a single-family dwelling

Illinois. Victim killed in a collapse in a (abandoned) commercial structure fire

Massachusetts. Victim killed in a fire behavior event (flashover) in an apartment fire

Scene Safety: 1

Maine. Victim killed while investigating a gas leak inside a commercial structure

Other (or Ventilation): 1

Colorado. Victim killed in fall from roof of burning apartment building

Structure Type

Commercial: 3
1: Fire

1: Gas Explosion
1: Silo Explosion

Residential: 4
3: Apartment

1: Single-Family

Cause of Death

Collapse: 2

                1: Single-Family
               1: Commercial (abandoned)

Fire Behavior: 2

                2: Apartment

Explosion: 2
                1: Gas Explosion

                1: Silo Explosion

Note that one on-duty death involved an abandoned structure in 2019.

Comparing 2019 to previous years in the activity ‘Advancing Hoselines’ we see that last year remained somewhat consistent:

2010: 2
2011: 7
2012: 6
2013: 8
2014: 9
2015: 4
2016: 2
2017: 0
2018: 7* (1 victim died in 2018 but the incident occurred in 1983)
2019: 5

It is interesting to note that all the victims listed above were career firefighters, including one that was Paid-On-Call.  None were volunteer firefighters.  Across the whole total career firefighter deaths slightly edged out volunteer firefighter deaths 30 to 27.


[1] The United States Fire Administration began tracking firefighter fatalities and providing annual analysis in 1976.

[2] The Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush and became Public Law 108-182. This presumes that a death by heart attack or stroke is in the line of duty if the firefighter was engaged in non-routine, stressful, or strenuous physical activity while on duty, and the firefighter became ill within 24 hours after engaging in such activity. Since 2004 this law accounts for an average of approximately 10 percent of the total on-duty deaths each year.

[3] “On-Duty & Line of Duty: What is the Difference?” Carey, FireRescue Magazine December 2013

[4] “Summit County firefighter dies after falling from roof of condo building during a fire in Copper Mountain” Nicole Miller, Summit Daily, December 2019.  Based on past USFA data the wide range use of ‘Advancing Hoselines’ would have fit if the victim had been handling a hoseline at some point in the incident.  Previous uses of ‘Other’ have been done when news stories and other details indicate the victim was performing ventilation or ventilation-related actions. News accounts of this incident make repeated use of the phrase “attempting to gain access to the fire” which makes ‘Ventilation’ plausible.

Photograph courtesy of Unsplash.

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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