Firefighting is dangerous, but death in a blaze remains rare

October 11, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Within hours of Baltimore firefighter Allan M. Roberts' death yesterday, leaders of the city's firefighter unions were flooded with sympathy calls from fellow firefighters around the country.

They knew that Roberts is among the relatively few firefighters who lose their lives while fighting blazes and as a result of a fire.

Nationwide, of the roughly 100 firefighters who die on duty each year, a quarter lose their lives in fires, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Nearly half the deaths are the result of heart attacks or other health-related problems, and an additional quarter are attributed to vehicle accidents.

So, when a firefighter loses his life in the line of duty, it is a reminder of the complexity and peril of the profession, despite a dedication to improved equipment and training in recent years.

"When Firefighter Roberts died today, a little piece of every firefighter in this country died along with him," said Deputy Fire Chief Billy Goldfeder, vice chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs safety, health and survival section.

Decades ago, firefighting was far more deadly. Before a sweeping 1973 report on fire prevention commissioned by the Nixon administration, firefighters were losing their lives on the job at a rate of about 350 per year, said Tom Olshanski, a spokesman at the U.S. Fire Administration.

Since then, sprinkler systems and smoke alarms have become mainstays and the number of fires has decreased nationwide. At the same time, fire departments have enhanced training and equipment technology has advanced.

Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association, has seen the advances in firefighting technology first-hand over his 32 years as a firefighter.

When he started out, firefighters wore khaki-like casual pants, rubber boots and plastic helmets to battle blazes. Today, they don't go near a fire without being covered in fire-retardant fabric from head to toe.

"It's almost like being a deep-sea diver with a helmet," he said.

Nevertheless, over the past two decades, the number of firefighter on-duty fatalities has remained steady, with about 100 per year, with the exception of the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 343 New York City firefighters died. About 60,000 firefighters nationwide are injured each year.

And while equipment has improved, fires today burn hotter and faster because of an abundance of toxic materials and plastics, said Olshanski.

The dangers of Baltimore's most common house fires, such as the one in which Roberts was killed, are very real, said Fugate.

"Technical advances have made the incidents of fire not as frequent, but they are just as dangerous," he said. "It goes to show you, there is no such thing as a `routine fire.'"

In addition, Baltimore, with its old rowhouses, presents unique challenges to firefighters, said Rick Schluderberg, president of Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734.

"When you can only come through the front or the back, it makes it more difficult," he said. "This particular row home had wood paneling, which is like putting matches on your walls."

Roberts was the second city firefighter to be killed fighting a fire in 11 years, but Schluderberg noted there have been many more close calls.

Still, Fugate says advancements in equipment and better training are the reasons Baltimore hasn't seen more fallen firefighters.

"Call me biased, but we do have good supervision and training," he said. "And I have to freely admit we have a bit of luck as well."

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