On Duty & Line of Duty: What Is the Difference?

By Bill Carey
15 January 2022

Originally published April 2013.

The death of a firefighter is an unfortunate tragedy that evokes many emotions and sentiments. Among them is the tradition and tribute associated with remembering the firefighter as having died in the line of duty. But before we can fully embrace this tradition, we must first understand the proper terminology related to firefighter fatalities and how this terminology affects the official annual tallies put forth by two national fire service organizations. Note: No disrespect is intended toward any of the victims as we examine how these organizations classify firefighter fatalities.

Determining Criteria
We are all familiar with the U.S. Fire Administration (UFSA) and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). Each has a mission regarding firefighter fatalities that helps improve firefighter awareness of each tragedy and also pays honor to the fallen and the survivors.

The USFA has criteria to help determine what can be identified as an “on-duty death,” beginning with the definition of a firefighter. A firefighter is defined as a member of an organized fire department assigned fire suppression duties in the 50 states, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam. Including career and volunteer firefighters, the definition includes fire-police; state, territory and federal personnel; and wildland firefighters. Privately employed firefighters, including contract employees and trained industrial fire brigade members, are also included, as are contract personnel working in direct support of the fire service, such as airtanker pilots and crewmembers.

The NFFF uses the same definition of a firefighter for its purposes with the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, but goes a step further to specify seasonal and full-time federal government employees, prison inmates serving as fire crews, and civilian firefighters at military installations. Additionally, in 2012, the NFFF added to its firefighter definition active-duty enlisted personnel and officers of the U.S. military who are assigned to fire stations and die while performing emergency services according to their position. Two exclusions to this definition are personnel who die fighting fire onboard Navy ships where all sailors are considered firefighters and personnel who die from direct enemy attack.

As far as the question of age in regard to junior firefighters and Explorers, although the USFA has no specific age in its definition of a firefighter, the Foundation abstains from rendering a decision where the victim is under the age of 18 until the Public Safety Officer’s Benefits (PSOB) program makes its determination.

Line of Duty & On Duty
“Line of duty” is the common phrase used by firefighters and fire departments across the world when identifying a firefighter killed in the course of his or her work. In the United States, though, the terms “line of duty” and “on duty” have different meanings, as defined by the USFA and NFFF.

For the USFA, “on duty” refers to being involved in operations at the scene of an emergency, fire or non-fire; responding to or returning from an incident; performing other assigned duties; and being on-call or standby, except at home or work. Firefighters who become ill performing duties and have a heart attack shortly after returning home, or at another location, may be considered as “on duty.”

For memorial purposes, the NFFF considers a line-of-duty death (LODD) as that which occurs during an activity or action where a firefighter is obligated or authorized by various rule, agreement or other law to perform as part of the fire service he or she serves, and the action is legally recognized. Documentation must be shown to provide a direct link from the incident to injury and death. In the case of deaths resulting from heart attack or stroke, proof must be presented to show the victim’s participation in emergency response or training activities within the 24-hour time-frame before the cardiovascular event.

This is somewhat different than the USFA, which makes a special notation in annual firefighter fatality reports for those firefighters who are considered to be “Hometown Heroes.” Specifically, USFA fatality reports after 2003 make note of those victims identified as benefiting from the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act. This federal legislation–signed on Dec. 15, 2003, by then-President George W. Bush–presumes that a 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 becomes ill within 24 hours after such activity.

Does PSOB Affect Determination?
The Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Act of 1976 was created to guarantee the provision of a one-time financial payment to eligible survivors of public safety officers whose deaths were a direct result of traumatic injury sustained in the line of duty, according to the USFA. Although this doesn’t necessarily impact firefighter fatalities counted by the USFA, the NFFF does have criteria regarding the PSOB Act and memorial inclusion.

The NFFF abstains from deciding on memorial eligibility until the PSOB program makes a determination if the death is:
–    One where the victim is under 18 years of age.
–    The death occurred while the victim was engaged in a non-emergency fire department duty.
–    The death is attributed to cancer or other disease or infection.
–    The death occurred during the victim’s commute to or from an assignment.
–    A report of alcohol or controlled substance use is involved in the death.

When a claim has been filed with the PSOB program, the NFFF will hold the case until a decision is rendered. If the claim is denied, then the victim will be ruled ineligible for inclusion on the national memorial.

The NFFF also identifies specific causes of deaths that exclude firefighters from memorial consideration: deaths attributed to suicide, alcohol or controlled substance abuse, and deaths resulting from the victim acting in a grossly negligent manner. There are other specifics and criteria used by both the USFA and the NFFF in determining eligibility into their respective accounts in cases such as deaths from previous years, delayed reporting or other causes of death that are individually weighed by the respective programs.

In Conclusion
For the average firefighter, it is important to know the differences in how the USFA and the NFFF identify and honor fallen firefighters so that when the discussion begins on a given year’s number of deaths, we are comparing like numbers year-on year. No firefighter fatality should be forgotten, but we should all understand the differences in the way they’re identified and honored.

Photograph courtesy of pixabay.

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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