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Study on safety

On-the-job experience, smoke alarms and sprinklers have more impact on firefighter safety than a structure’s height or construction material, according to a study of newly available, Canada-wide fire statistics.

October 23, 2018 
By Len Garis and Ian Pike

The impact of the built environment on firefighter injuries and death was examined in a new study. On-the-job experience

The fledgling National Fire Incident Database (NFID), a project of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners, supported by Statistics Canada, has provided unprecedented data on the impact of the built environment on firefighter injuries and death (referred to as “casualties” in this article).

A group of researchers and academics at the B.C. Injury Research and Prevention Unit (BCIRPU) and University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) synthesized 10 years of Canadian fire statistics from the NFID and other sources, reporting their results in the May 2018 study Examining the Relationship between Firefighter Injuries and Fatalities in the Built Environment: A case for reducing the risk to firefighters through adequate firefighting experience, working smoke alarms and sprinkler coverage in buildings, by Alex Zheng, Andy Jiang, Fahra Rajabali, Kate Turcotte, Len Garis and Ian Pike.

Of note was the discovery that building height or construction material – long thought to be key determinants of firefighter safety – mattered less than the firefighters’ experience, as well as the presence of automatic detection and extinguishment devices such as smoke alarms and sprinklers.

“These revelations are a testament to the importance of maintaining and sharing fire data, to ensure decisions are based on evidence rather than assumptions,” said lead author Zheng, a BCIRPU biostatistician and researcher. “As the NFID grows more robust, it will help Canada’s fire service become more strategic and focus on what matters. In this case, the data has provided a roadmap for reducing firefighter casualties.”


The purpose of the study was to describe structure-related injuries and deaths directly affecting firefighters over a 10-year period. The authors reviewed data from 177,626 fires (72 per cent of those residential) that took place between 2005 and 2014 in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, and correlated it with statistics from the Association of Worker Compensation Boards of Canada (AWCBC) and Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia (WorkSafeBC).

During the study timeframe and in those same provinces, there were 11,100 firefighter work-related time-loss and fatality claims, with structure-related firefighter casualties making up 20.4 per cent of total workplace casualties and 23.4 per cent of all traumatic casualties.

Key findings from the data review:

  • Civilian casualty rates were higher than those for firefighters. However, while firefighter casualties in general did not tend to be as serious as those to civilians, firefighters were much more likely to be injured by physical causes such as falls.
  • Firefighters had reduced casualty rates when automatic fire detection system, fire detection devices, and automatic extinguishing equipment were present (between 34.3 and 38.8 per cent)
  • Whether or not the fire was initially detected by a fire-safety device reduced the odds of a firefighter casualty by 61.2 per cent.
  • Firefighting experience reduced the odds of serious casualty in firefighters by 0.3 per cent for every five years of experience.
  • Fire spread increased the incidence of firefighter casualty, but did not affect the seriousness of the casualty.

They also reviewed existing literature on the topic, ultimately finding only six studies that were relevant, but only two (both using U.S. data) directly associated structural properties with firefighter casualties. Key findings:

  • Roughly 17 per cent of reported fatalities were structure-related, with common causes including the collapse of building components, falls and rapid flashover.
  • The risk of firefighter injury increased when fires originated below ground level or 10 to 49 feet above ground. Risk declined above 49 feet, however, perhaps due to increased fire detection and safety measures in taller buildings.
  • Little to no differences to civilian or firefighter injury and death rates were found to be based on building materials (combustible or non-combustible), providing the structures had sprinkler protection systems and smoke alarms.
  • From 95 to 97 per cent of residential fires occur in buildings without any sprinkler protection and account for the overwhelming majority of related injuries and deaths. The same study showed the fires in buildings with sprinklers were more likely to be confined to the room of origin and less likely to require fire department intervention.
  • A study of 42,701 residential fires found that 28 per cent occurred in buildings without a smoke alarm and caused 32 to 37 per cent of fire injuries and deaths.

Overall, analysis of the data found no evidence that building properties, such as construction material and height, affected risk to firefighters. The data did, however, show that firefighter risk is affected by fire safety measures.

“The best-case scenario for reducing firefighter casualties would be adequate firefighting experience, when automatic fire detection systems are in place, when fire detection devices are present, when automatic fire extinguishing equipment are working properly, when working smoke alarms are functioning properly, and when the building has sprinkler coverage,” the study noted.

Prior to the UFV’s release of the study in May 2018, there was little evidence linking building properties with firefighter casualties.

The authors recommended further investigation to test and expand on the findings when better quality data becomes available. This could include pilot studies by select fire departments. The authors also recommended that further data be collected on structural integrity, such as the weakening and failing of structural supports, to better investigate its role in relation to firefighter casualties.

The study can be downloaded for free at

Len Garis is the fire chief for the City of Surrey, B.C., an adjunct professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice & associate to the Centre for Social Research at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), a member of the affiliated research faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and a faculty member of the Institute of Canadian Urban Research Studies at Simon Fraser University. Contact him at

Dr. Ian Pike is professor of pediatrics at the University of B.C.; investigator and co-lead of the Evidence to Innovation Research Theme at the Research Institute at B.C. Children’s Hospital; director of the B.C. Injury Research and Prevention Unit; and co-executive director for The Community Against Preventable Injuries. Contact him at

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