Since 1976, the USFA has tracked the number of firefighter fatalities and conducted an annual analysis. Through the collection of information on the causes of firefighter deaths, the USFA can focus on specific problems and direct efforts toward finding solutions to reduce the number of firefighter fatalities in the future. This information is also used to measure the effectiveness of current programs directed toward firefighter health and safety. Several programs have been developed by the USFA in response to this annual report. For example, the USFA sponsors research to create safer operational environments for firefighters by increasing awareness about emergency vehicle operations safety, health and safety of the female emergency responder, fire service risk management, fire station safety, and roadway incident safety. The data developed for this report are also widely used in other firefighter fatality prevention efforts.
In addition to performing this analysis, the USFA, working in partnership with the NFFF, develops a list of all on-duty firefighter fatalities and associated documentation each year. If certain criteria are met, the fallen firefighter’s next of kin, as well as members of the individual’s fire department, are invited by the NFFF to the annual National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service. The service is held at the National Emergency Training Center (NETC) in Emmitsburg, Maryland, during National Fire Prevention Week in October of each year. The 40th Annual National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend was held Oct. 2-3, 2021, and families who lost loved ones in 2019 and 2020 were invited to attend the ceremony.
An on-duty fatality includes any injury or illness that was sustained while on duty and 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 or 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 they prepare to respond to an emergency is considered on duty when the response begins. A firefighter who 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.
102 firefighters died in 2020 from injuries sustained while on duty. This is 37 more than the 2019 total of 65 firefighter fatalities. The 2020 total includes 10 firefighters who died under circumstances that were part of inclusion criteria changes resulting from the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act. It also includes 36 firefighters who died from complications of COVID-19. When not including these fatalities, there were 56 firefighter fatalities in 2020 that were non-Hometown Hero and did not occur as a result of complications relating to COVID-19.
An analysis of multiyear firefighter fatality numbers and trends needs to acknowledge the changes from the December 2003 Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act as well as the inclusion of fatalities that occurred due to complications of COVID-19. As a result, some figures and tables in this report may not include the Hometown Heroes and COVID-19 fatalities in the total or may separate them. This does not, however, diminish the sacrifices made by any firefighter who dies while on duty, or the sacrifices made by their family and peers.
In 2020, firefighter fatalities included 49 career firefighters, 44 volunteer firefighters, and 9 part-time or full-time members of wildland or wildland contract fire agencies. The gender of the firefighters who died while on duty in 2020 consisted of 1 female and 101 males. The 102 deaths in 2020 resulted from a total of 99 fatal incidents, including 3 multiple firefighter fatality incidents taking the lives of 6 firefighters.
In 2020, 13 firefighters were killed during activities involving brush, grass or wildland firefighting. This total includes part-time and seasonal wildland firefighters, full-time wildland firefighters, and municipal or volunteer firefighters whose deaths are related to a wildland fire.