Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Study says number of firefighters killed en route is up

The Associated Press

QUINCY, Mass.- The number of firefighters killed in vehicular accidents nationwide increased last year, a new study shows, and more died in en route to fires than were killed in blazes.

The findings by the Quincy-based National Fire Protection Association showed that 33 firefighters died in on-duty crashes in 2003, while 29 firefighters died battling blazes. The number of vehicle-related deaths was the most in any year since 1977, when the association began tracking the data.

Of the crashes, 24 involved collisions or rollovers. Eight of the firefighters killed in crashes were not wearing seat belts, and at least six of the drivers were speeding, the researchers said.

"They just need to be more careful," said Rita F. Fahy, the association's manager of fire databases and systems, who helped author the study, which was obtained by The Boston Globe and published Wednesday.

However while firefighters say they try to obey road rules, driving fire equipment is made difficult by maze-like roads, traffic jams and the stress of an emergency.

"It's always tricky," said firefighter Richard Powers, a 34-year-old veteran of the Boston Fire Department.

Powers said he could not recall any traffic deaths in the city, although he said minor accidents involving fire engines are common.

Massachusetts State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan suggested that many of the traffic-related deaths nationwide result from call and volunteer firefighters rushing to the scene of a blaze in their own cars and pickups, as opposed to professional firefighters traveling in a fire engine.

Meanwhile, the association said stress and overexertion remained the leading cause of death of firefighters in 2003. Last year, 47 firefighters died from stress-induced heart attacks, the study found.

All told, 105 firefighters nationwide died on duty in 2003, up from 97 in 2002. The increase primarily was due to forest and wildfires, the study found.

The most catastrophic traffic accident last year involved eight Oregon firefighters, return from a blaze in Idaho, who died when their van crossed the highway's center line and collided with a tractor-trailer. Alcohol was a factor in the crash, the study indicated.