We present results from an extensive study of fluctuation phenomena in superconducting nanowires made from sputtered NbN. Nanoscale wires were fabricated in form of a meander and operated at a constant temperature T≈0.4Tc(0). The superconducting state is driven close to the electronic phase transition by a high bias current near the critical one. Fluctuations of sufficient strength temporarily drive a section of the meander structure into the normal-conducting state, which can be registered as a voltage pulse of nanosecond duration. We considered three different models (vortex-antivortex pairs, vortex edge barriers, and phase-slip centers) to explain the experimental data. Only thermally excited vortices, either via unbinding of vortex-antivortex pairs or vortices overcoming the edge barrier, lead to a satisfactory and consistent description for all measurements.