Criteria Used to Make On-Duty Firefighter Fatality Determinations

Who is a Firefighter?

For the purpose of the Firefighter Fatalities in the United States study, the term firefighter covers all members of organized fire departments with assigned fire suppression duties in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the Territories of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam. It includes career and volunteer firefighters; full-time public safety officers acting as firefighters; fire police; state, territory, and federal government fire service personnel, including wildland firefighters; and privately employed firefighters, including employees of contract fire departments and trained members of industrial fire brigades, whether full- or part-time. It also includes contract personnel working as firefighters or assigned to work in direct support of fire service organizations (air-tanker crews).

Under this definition, the study includes not only local and municipal firefighters but also seasonal and full-time employees of the United States Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and State wildland agencies. The definition also includes prison inmates serving on fire fighting crews; firefighters employed by other governmental agencies, such as the United States Department of Energy; military personnel performing assigned fire suppression activities; and civilian firefighters working at military installations.

What Constitutes an On-Duty Fatality?

On-duty fatalities include any injury or illness sustained while on-duty that proves fatal. The term "on-duty" refers to being involved in operations at the scene of an emergency, whether it is a fire or nonfire incident; responding to or returning from an incident; performing other officially assigned duties such as training, maintenance, public education, inspection, investigations, court testimony, and fundraising; and being on-call, under orders, or on standby duty except at the individual's home or place of business. An individual who experiences a heart attack or other fatal injury at home while he or she prepares to respond to an emergency is considered on-duty when the response begins. A firefighter that becomes ill while performing fire department duties and suffers a heart attack shortly after arriving home or at another location may be considered on-duty since the inception of the heart attack occurred while the firefighter was on-duty.

Impact of Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act

On December 15, 2003, the President of the United States signed into law the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act of 2003. After being signed by the President, the Act became Public Law 108-182. The law presumes that a heart attack or stroke are 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 while on-duty or within 24 hours after engaging in such activity.

Full Text of Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act of 2003 (PDF, 25 Kb, Adobe Acrobat PDF Help)

The inclusion criteria for this study have been impacted by this change in the law. Previous to December 15, 2003, firefighters that became ill as the result of a heart attack or stroke after going off-duty needed to register some complaint of not feeling well while still on-duty in order to be included in this study. For firefighter fatalities after December 15, 2003, firefighters will be included in this study if they become ill as the result of a heart attack or stroke within 24-hours of a training activity or emergency response. Firefighters that become ill after going off-duty where the activities while on-duty were limited to tasks that did not involve physical or mental stress will not be included in this study.

Other Criteria

A fatality may be caused directly by an accidental or intentional injury in either emergency or non-emergency circumstances, or it may be attributed to an occupationally related fatal illness. A common example of a fatal illness incurred on-duty is a heart attack. Fatalities attributed to occupational illnesses would also include a communicable disease contracted while on-duty that proved fatal when the disease could be attributed to a documented occupational exposure.

Firefighter fatalities are included in this report even when death is considerably delayed after the original incident. When the incident and the death occur in different years, the analysis counts the fatality as having occurred in the year in which the incident took place.

There is no established mechanism for identifying fatalities that result from illnesses, such as cancer, that develop over long periods of time and which may be related to occupational exposure to hazardous materials or toxic products of combustion. It has proved to be very difficult over the years to provide a complete evaluation of an occupational illness as a causal factor in firefighter deaths due to the following limitations: the exposure of firefighters to toxic hazards is not sufficiently tracked; the often delayed long-term effects of such toxic hazard exposures; and the exposures firefighters may receive while off-duty.