State ranks highest in firefighter deaths
Pennsylvania led the nation last year with 17 firefighters killed in the line of duty.
Many of the deaths were not caused by smoke, flames or falling debris, but rather heart attacks and strokes caused by bad diet and lack of exercise, said state Fire Commissioner Ed Mann.
"The fire service needs a cultural change," he said. "We all need to pay more attention to what we eat and the lack of exercise."
Mann attributed nine of the state's deaths to heart attack and stroke. Five were caused by trauma from a fall or being struck by objects, including two Pittsburgh firefighters who died when the bell tower at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Hill District collapsed. Two died from carbon monoxide poisoning and one, a Berkley Hills firefighter, was felled by a skin infection.
"In the four-and-a-half years I've been fire commissioner, we have averaged 10 line-of-duty deaths per year, which usually makes us one or two in the nation," Mann said. "Last year, we had 17. That's well above what we normally average."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency reported Thursday that 107 firefighters died on duty nationwide. Of those, half suffered non-traumatic injuries, including 49 heart attacks.
Mann said some departments require firefighters to pass a physical agility test every year to stay on the job, but the state does not require them to get training before they respond to an emergency.
"So, in some communities, depending on the fire chief and local government, an individual may join the department on a Monday, and Tuesday could be responding to their first fire," he said.
Only one city firefighter has died from a heart attack on duty in the past 10 years, said Pittsburgh Fire Chief Peter Micheli Jr.
City firefighters must pass a physical agility test when they're hired, but not afterwards, he said. They must take a physical if they are off the job more than 14 days or are up for a promotion.
Micheli said the department has no health maintenance program, but most city firefighters stay in shape on their own. "We have very extensive gyms in the station houses," he said.
Burt Lugar, treasurer of the Churchill Volunteer Fire Company, attributes the high number of fatalities to the nature of the job.
"It's a stressful thing, when you're out there, trying to do something, carrying a lot of equipment, wearing a lot of gear," he said.
Compounding the problem is the age of the firefighters.
"A lot of the people doing this are older -- in their 40s, 50s and 60s," said Lugar, 46. "It's hard to get the young people involved. We haven't quite figured out how to do that."
Pennsylvania firefighters killed in the line of duty
Seventeen firefighters, the most in the nation, died on duty in Pennsylvania in 2004. Here are the dates of the incidents and the causes of death.
Source: Pennsylvania State Fire Commissioner