Mortality risk for police and firefighters surprisingsly low — and dropping rapidly

Richard Rider, Chairman, San Diego Tax Fighters Undesignated Leave a Comment


SUMMATION:  Updated data from reputable (even pro-labor union) sources show that the mortality risk for police and firefighters is lower than most people think.  It’s even significantly lower than I found in previous research just a few years ago — when the police and firefighter mortality figures were both about 16-17 deaths per hundred thousand — vs. the (current) national all-occupation average mortality rate of 3.5 per 100K.

Today the national mortality figure for full-time paid firefighters is about 11.1 per 100K.  Certainly more dangerous than most people’s work, but now roughly on a par with “Athletes, Coaches and Umpires” (see chart below).

Even more dramatic, in California, the police and sheriff average mortality rate (2008-2012) was only 4.9 per 100K — only modestly above the 3.5 mortality average for all U.S. jobs. Millions of jobs are more dangerous than being a cop or firefighter — often MUCH more dangerous. A table of some of the more dangerous occupations is included below. 

BACKGROUND: Periodically the defenders of big pensions for government employees justify all such pensions by citing the dangers of public safety workers — primarily police and firefighters.  Why all generous government state and local pensions are justified by this subset of government employees is never clear — but it’s the “typical” example pension defenders use to make their case.

FINDINGS:  Let’s put aside the fact that the category of “public safety” workers has expanded to mean all sorts of government employees only tangentially involved in public safety who take no significant personal risks (dispatchers, for instance). Let’s face up to the mortality risks faced on the job by police and firefighters – compared to the risks in other occupations.

I’ve drilled down into several new and updated sources on mortality risks.  Even I was stunned to find how RELATIVELY safe police and firefighter work is getting — especially compared to other occupations.

I’m not here going to go through all the calculations, but I WILL list the sources.  It involved a surprising amount of analysis, as this important information is not found directly in any source I could find.

I had to pull out the jailers from the cop figures — as union websites like to include them in the mortality numbers, but paradoxically that inclusion unfairly LOWERS the average cop mortality rate. For my purposes, I assumed that the jailers (state and local) die on the job at the same rate as the national 3.5 per 100K national job mortality average.  If one assumes it’s a higher rate, then ironically that means the cops and sheriffs die at an even lower rate than my numbers conclude.

Similarly, I pulled out the voluntary and part-time firefighters from the firefighting category.  The goal is to quantify the risk to our full-time paid defenders who most frequently are called upon to respond.

I should add that police mortality rate varies DRAMATICALLY by state.  Generally speaking, southern and some rural states are significantly more dangerous for cops than California, which has a low mortality rate by national standards.  The higher rates elsewhere can have to do with more rural driving, violence mentality, training, equipment, etc. in other states.  I’ll leave the reason(s) for that mortality difference for others to figure out.

One factor improving cop mortality rates is that there’s been a major increase in the wearing of bulletproof vests in just the last 4 years — which also cut down on other injuries.

Firefighting mortality continues to improve nationwide.  Better fitness (almost half of all firefighters die from heart attacks!), fewer fires and other improvements have been cutting the mortality rate.

One belated but significant firefighter improvement would be almost funny if deaths had not been the consequence of the delayed reform — fire departments today mandate their firefighters wear safety belts when driving to and from emergencies — significantly reducing deaths from traffic accidents. Duh!

U.S. on-the-job mortality rate per 100,000 full-time workers, by occupation
Mortality National Average at Work, ALL Occupations 3.5
Public Safety Mortality Risk
U.S. Career Firefighters (not counting volunteers or part-timers) 11.1
CA Police Officers & Sheriffs (not corrections officers & jailers) 4.9
Other Occupations Mortality Risk
Commercial Fishers 127.3
Logging Workers 104.0
Airline Pilots and Flight Engineers 56.1
Refuse & Recyclable Material Workers 36.4
Roofers 34.1
Structural Iron and Steel Workers 30.3
Recyclable Material Merchant Wholesalers 28.4
Helpers, Construction Trades 26.8
Farmers and Ranchers 26.1
Driver/Sales Workers & Truck Drivers 24.5
Taxi Drivers and Chauffeurs 19.7
Electrical Powerline Workers 19.5
Drinking Places (Alcoholic Beverages) 18.0
Cement, concrete, lime, and gypsum product manufacturing 17.5
Grounds Maintenance Workers 16.9
Maintenance & Repair Workers, General 15.8
Construction Laborers 15.7
Landscaping Services 15.6
Mining, Quarrying, and Oil & Gas Extraction 15.2
Construction Equipment Operators 12.1
Athletes, Coaches, Umpires 10.3
Rail Transportation Workers 9.5

For a more complete list of occupations and their respective mortality rates, go to this Bureau of Labor Statistics URL:


Here’s the other major sources I used to find the mortality rates, along with a few largely unintelligible notes I made while researching.
31 career deaths 2012   divide into 3.44 and you get a death rate of 11.1 deaths per 100K
344,000 career firefighters 2011.  69% of ff’s are volunteers.

Number of corrections officers and jailers:
CA  37,210

Number of Police and Sheriff’s patrol officers:
CA  69,740

Total CA law enforcement: 106,950 — 35% jailers

Assuming CA state and local jailers die at only the national average of 3.5, then the balance died at
3.5 x .35 + ? x .65 = 4.4
Thus ? = 4.9 = CA cop mortality rate 2008-2012


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