Eighty-seven on-duty firefighters died in the U.S. in 2005, a sharp decrease from the 103 firefighter fatalities that occurred in 2004 and the third lowest death toll since the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) began tracking this information in 1977, according to a new report released by NFPA.

The sharp decrease in the total number of on-duty deaths that occurred in 2005 is encouraging, and obviously the direction you want these numbers to move, said Rita F. Fahy, Ph.D., manager of fire databases and systems for NFPA. One year does not make a trend, but we hope it is a sign of one developing.

According to the NFPA study, firefighters are more likely to die from a sudden cardiac event (usually a heart attack) than any other cause.

For the third straight year, firefighters were more likely to die responding to or returning from alarms and not at the scene of a fire. Of the 26 deaths occurring in transit for 2005, 13 were due to sudden cardiac death and 10 were due to vehicle collisions or rollovers.

Although the second highest number of deaths (25) occurred at the fire ground--the area where the fire is being fought--this was the lowest number of deaths for this segment since 1977. Sudden cardiac death was the major cause, accounting for 11 of the 25 fatalities in this category as well.

For the fourth consecutive year the number of firefighter deaths during training activities has been 11, making up 13% of total deaths in 2005. These deaths are particularly distressing, since the purpose of training is to protect firefighters.

Sudden cardiac death was the lead cause with seven deaths: one firefighter drowned during dive training, one suffered a stroke, one died of heat stroke and one fell off a roof. NFPA is conducting a special analysis on the 100 training fatalities that occurred between 1996 and 2005.

A range of factors contributed to the drop in fatalities in 2005, including decreases in the number of deaths associated with wildland fires and the number of firefighters struck and killed by vehicles. To maintain the low level of on-duty fatalities that occurred in 2005, it is essential that efforts to reduce the incidence of heart disease among firefighters continue, especially by reducing the risk factors for heart disease, said Fahy.

NFPA has been a worldwide leader in providing fire, electrical, building, and life safety to the public since 1896. The mission of the international nonprofit organization is to reduce the worldwide burden of fire and other hazards on the quality of life by providing and advocating consensus codes and standards, research, training, and education.