Drawing the Line of Duty

This is from the 2018 Incident Review Summary.

By Travis Dotson

We recorded the work-related death of 19 wildland firefighters in 2018.


But not everyone is on the same page about which ones should be considered a “Line of Duty Death.” Everyone agrees that if you are overrun by fire or get hit by a tree on the fireline—that is death in the line of duty. But what if a fire crew member doing project work begins convulsing, goes unconscious, and is pronounced dead at the hospital? What if a fire crew member gets home from a fire assignment and dies the next day due to complications from pneumonia? Tough questions. But for us here at the Lessons Learned Center we list them all because we are concerned with LESSONS—not numbers. Each of these tragic instances provides an opportunity for collective and individual solemn introspection.



In small groups discuss these topics:

  • What does the term “Line of Duty Death” mean to you?
  • What are the lessons from a non-typical firefighter death?
  • Should we honor people differently based on how they died?

9 thoughts on “Drawing the Line of Duty

  1. Since fire crews are still doing “project work” and be used as “labor resource” for the common good of the Forest, District, you insert the blank….

    Work related on the clock? Pneumonia contracted during fire assignment, not at home? Nail shot or hammered through finger because of shambles of Guv quarters?

    Christ Amighty…here we are 50 yrs later in the fire world and either we don’t know OSHA and safety,….YET ….or better yet manager promoted and not understanding the true breadth of life or assignments, possible no mentors, ETC

    Tough Questions? Yep…cuz you aint going to get uniform consistent answers from any Agency even with this new day of Fire/ NIMS/ NIIMS/ All Hazard – All Risk / State or local Cooperators

    Lessons Learned best keep the list going…most likely because it will be buried elsewhere

  2. You count project work as a line of duty death. I received one of your notices of a tragic death of a member of a CAL FIRE Conservation camp crew who died brushing roads on project work. Do you count a death on a contract crew doing project work to be a line of duty death? Do we have to be government employees to be considered a firefighter off the fire line? Does it really matter if the person who died of pneumonia after coming home from a fire was a contractor. Why do YOU the Lessons Learned Center qualify a dead mans status as a firefighter with stating that he was a contractor. When you reference government employees, you call them fire crew members, are contractors who are members of NWCG recognized fire crews not fire crew members just because they operate under a contract. In the same paragraph, one sentence refers to a dead person as a fire crew member while the very next sentence refers to a dead person as a contractor. The fire crew member died doing project work while the contractor died from a direct result of working on a fire but the government employee is a fire crew member and the contractor, well they are just a contractor.
    Here’s a lesson for you: Why don’t YOU, the Lessons Learned Center refer to firefighters as firefighters. If you want to collect data about firefighter deaths, good for you, but remember that there are thousands of firefighters that you are ignoring and alienating just to continue the old concept that even though we all do the same job, somehow, contractors are contractors and firefighters are government employees.

    • Alex
      Thank you!
      Totally fair criticism about the language we use and the distinctions they insinuate. We are all driven by our conscious and unconscious biases – I am appreciative when mine are pointed out to me. I changed the language in this post (from contractor to fire crew member) and I will certainly be more aware of this wording inequity in the future.

      Thank you so much for the lesson – we all learn together.

      Travis Dotson

  3. Well, some of us make a career in firefighting and not a side job. So I would call them firefighters the others are contractors

    • I have been fighting fire as a contractor for 19 years. It is my main source of income. I have fought fire all over this country and spent months of my life away from my family cutting fire line, mopping up, dodging snags, accomplishing objectives, saving homes and doing the job that we all call being a firefighter. According to Bob here, I might be a firefighter because I don’t have to supplement my income with another job but anyone I work with who has another job is not a firefighter.
      Tell me Bob, when a Forest Service employee wants to fight fire but not make a career out of it does that mean that they are not a firefighter? If a Government employee is killed on the fire line, do they find out if they had another job and therefore deny them the benefits of being a firefighter? Agencies can put a green rookie out on their first fire and call them a firefighter but a contractor, even after 19 years, still just a contractor.
      We are talking about people who died, not faceless numbers. Eric Aarseth was the contractor who died of pneumonia the day after he returned from assignment. If he had been employed by an agency, we would be talking about the tragic death of a firefighter but because he fought fire with a contracting company, we are questioning whether his death should even be counted as a line of duty death, and we sure can’t refer to him as a firefighter.
      This disdain and disregard for anyone who is not an agency employee is shameful and disgusting. These are human beings who do the same job as you do.
      Duty, Integrity and respect? Not when it comes to contractors.

  4. I appreciate that the WFLLC is going to look at all fire employment related injuries/illnesses equally, that is consistent with the mission of the organization. A “non-typical firefighter death”, injury, or illness is still a death, injury, or illness and if it can be attributed to employment it should be examined to see if there are any things to be learned.

    As far as nomenclature, maybe using the terms “agency firefighter” and “contract firefighter” would be acceptable.

    Finally, why is it that the term “Christ Amighty” as an expletive considered acceptable on this site when it is considered extremely offensive by many?

  5. Wow I thought the question was about Line of Duty Death. There is clearly another issue out there.

    My unit was just having some of these questions and it became clear to me that not every one Knows the difference between Workers Comp definition, GOV agency definition, and some benefit package definitions. I just attend You Will Not Stand Alone training where I leaned how much these different definitions mean to a family and loved ones. If I die of a heart attack at work it is not a line of duty for workers comp. and there for the GOV, but for some benefit packages they consider my work status. Bottom line we need to do more to educate our folks on benefit packages, confidential diary’s (emergency notification forms), and explaining the true risk of the job. Line Officers and managers have a lot leeway in how we honor our dead in either case.

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