Counting the number of firefighters who’ve died in the line of duty isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Last week on KPBS, firefighters union president Frank De Clercq said this:

What do I say to the families of the 36 firefighters in San Diego that have given their lives in the past years, that died early, died in the line of duty?

De Clercq was criticizing a proposed city ballot measure to replace pensions with a 401(k)-style plan for all new city employees except police. While the firefighters he currently represents would keep their pensions, the next generation of San Diego firefighters would get a 401(k) instead.

Whether firefighters and lifeguards should be exempted from the proposal has divided local Republicans. Mayor Jerry Sanders and City Councilman Kevin Faulconer initially supported exempting all public safety employees, but then settled on only police officers in a compromise with business groups and Councilman Carl DeMaio. District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who’s running for mayor, opposes the ballot measure, saying “those who put their lives at risk daily in the line of duty should have a secure pension.”

On KPBS, De Clercq was not happy with the compromise and described ending pensions for new firefighters as dishonorable to those who have died in the past. Since it struck part of the ongoing debate about the ballot measure, I set out to Fact Check the number of deaths he cited.

But as it turned out, the number is also a matter of debate.

A plaque in the Fire-Rescue Department says eight city firefighters have been killed in the line of duty since the early 1900s (the most recent was Joseph Estavillo, who died in 1997 after being infected with a flesh-eating bacteria while fighting a brush fire in rural San Diego County).

A statewide memorial organized by firefighter unions says 21 firefighters have been killed in San Diego during roughly the same period. In a follow-up interview, De Clercq said he believes 36 names should be included in the statewide memorial and is working to add those not already listed.

The differences between those numbers come from their definitions. The Fire-Rescue Department uses a definition modeled after one created by the federal government to determine whether family members can receive one-time financial assistance. The firefighter must have died from a traumatic injury sustained while on the job.

The 21 deaths listed on the statewide memorial include those fatalities and others from a definition created by state officials for workers compensation purposes. Any firefighters who died within five years of retirement from certain illnesses such as heart attack or cancer are also counted since the medical condition might have manifested while they were still employed.

This year, the state doubled that timeframe, allowing compensation for any firefighter who died within 10 years rather than 5. The statewide memorial has set out to update its list to include all those who previously died within 10 years of retirement of job-related illnesses. After it’s updated, De Clercq said he expects 36 San Diego firefighters will be listed.

De Clercq declined to name the firefighters who may be added, saying it would be inappropriate to discuss their deaths until families had been contacted.

In the end, we decided not to issue a Fact Check ruling on De Clercq’s statement since there are two standard definitions that it could be measured against. One of the definitions has expanded recently, and we don’t have the information to say whether the number De Clercq fits within the new perimeters.

But the distinction was still worth explaining in the context of the 401(k) debate so the next time De Clercq or anyone else talks about firefighter deaths, you’ll have some bearing on who they might be talking about.

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at or 619.550.5668 and follow him on Twitter:

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