As Boston mourns two firefighters, an audience of burn-care professionals heard new research Friday that found that firefighters are more likely to die in the line of duty while training or because of a vehicle crash than in a fire.
Dr. Steven A. Kahn delivered the findings at a meeting of the American Burn Associaton at the Sheraton Hotel, near the Back Bay firehouse where Lieutenant Edward J. Walsh Jr. and Firefighter Michael R. Kennedy worked.
The talk had been scheduled far in advance of the fatal fire on Beacon Street.
“In addition to the two heroes who died on Wednesday, I’d like to acknowledge the bravery of every firefighter in the United States and in the world, particularly those who have fallen in the line of duty,” Kahn said.
Reseachers found that heart attacks were to blame for about 40 percent of the 2,775 firefighter deaths nationwide the researchers examined over a 20-year period.
Meanwhile, the number of firefighters killed by burns, asphyxiation, and electrocution dropped, researchers said.
“We found that more people are dying from heart attack, so this may be a reflection of an overall level of fitness,” Kahn said in an interview. “This may predispose them to traumatic accidents, as well.’’
Kahn, Dr. Lisa Rae, both with the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, and Jason Woods, president of the D.C. Firefighters Burn Foundation, examined the US Fire Administration fatality database for firefighter deaths from 1990 to 2000 and from 2002 to 2012.
Data from 2001, when 347 firefighters died during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was excluded, said an abstract for the research paper.
Researchers found that the number of heart attack-related deaths increased by 3½ percent between the two decades and that training-related deaths rose 4 percent. Meanwhile, the number of deaths caused by asphyxiation or burns declined, Kahn said.
“We see more deaths related to training, and this leads to another question,” Kahn said. “Has the nature of training changed where it’s become more vigorous and that’s why more people are having heart attacks or suffering accidents?”
The rise in the number of training- and vehicle-related deaths warrants more study and action, researchers said. Kahn said prevention efforts should focus on heart disease, modifying the risks firefighters take, and wellness programs.
Meanwhile, the number of deaths in the line of duty caused by asphyxiation dropped by more than 4 percent, and the deaths caused by burns dropped nearly 4 percent.
Deaths caused by asphyxiation and burns have dropped at the same time that personal protective gear has improved and more attention is being paid to unsafe practices, like wearing protective gear incorrectly or not wearing it, Kahn said.
On the subject of burns, Kahn said firefighters have also benefited from an increase in the number of sprinklers in buildings and better medical care.