Belt Up!

BY MICHAEL E. BOYLE

This is not a touchy-feely article. It’s not about the great job we are doing as firefighters or about the lives we are saving. This article is about the senseless loss of lives. If you’re not interested in saving firefighters’ lives, including possibly your own, don’t read it. Hopefully, this article will cause you to look yourself in the eye and ask, “Am I part of the problem?”

The death notifications from the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) Firefighter Notification system these past weeks have once again aroused and fueled my emotions on an issue and cause me to speak out regarding the use—or more importantly, the lack of use—of seat belts.

Many of you have seen the notifications from the USFA. Although the date, time, location, and department are different, the narrative reads basically the same, and the outcome is always identical. It starts out stating that one of our fellow firefighters was driving a vehicle or riding in a vehicle; the vehicle either left the road, rolled over, or was involved in a collision; and the firefighter was ejected from the vehicle and died. Ejected? Every time I read one of these reports, I ask, How did they get ejected? Did the seat belt break? Of course it didn’t break; it wasn’t being worn! Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acknowledges that seat belt failure is possible, the greatest failure associated with seat belts in the fire service is our failure to wear them.

A FIVE-YEAR-OLD KNOWS BETTER

It is tragic when firefighters lose their lives to a fire; it’s an even greater tragedy and embarrassing when we lose firefighters from vehicle ejections because ejections are easily preventable. As firefighters, we stand before our communities every day and talk about safety. We talk about fire drills in the home, smoke detectors, residential sprinklers, cooking safety, pool safety—and, yes, even wearing seat belts.

We pound on our chests and ask our community leaders and fire chiefs to spend countless dollars for state-of-the-art safety equipment to keep us safe, but then we walk right out of that presentation, jump on the rig, and refuse to wear one of the most basic pieces of safety equipment provided for us. Try placing five-year-old children in a car without a seat belt. It won’t happen! Why? They know better. At age five, they know that a seat belt keeps them safe and that wearing a seat belt is the law (in most states). At what point do we firefighters believe we become immune to the dangers that even a five-year-old can recognize?

CONSIDER THE CONSEQUENCES

Riding in fire apparatus unbuckled is not an act of bravery. It’s not macho. To be blunt, it’s stupid and irresponsible. It’s irresponsible to our communities; our departments; our fellow firefighters; and, most importantly, to loved ones and friends. What will the lifelong impacts be on the survivors, knowing their loved one could have survived a simple accident by taking the simple step of buckling up? If you’re one who doesn’t buckle up, have you asked yourself what the impact of a fatal accident would have on your crew? You can be sure that there will be an investigation of the accident. You can be confident the question, “Did the crew know you weren’t wearing your seat belt?” will be asked. Do you honestly want to put your fellow crew members through that?

What if you do survive and your department determines you weren’t wearing your seat belt against department policy—you can no longer work, and your workers’ compensation benefits are denied? What will your family do? Is it really worth the five seconds you thought you’d save by not buckling up? Is it really that macho?

As company officers and supervisors, how could you possibly leave a station without your firefighters strapped in? What part of firefighting is so important that you need to be unbuckled while riding on fire apparatus? What part of the mission of the fire service is so important that firefighters are allowed to travel on fire apparatus (and private vehicles) without being securely belted into their seats? We’ve all heard the common excuse that riding unbuckled saves time; in fact, it doesn’t save any time. The truth is, you know it doesn’t. Furthermore, the result of not wearing your seat belt is that it prevents you from performing the very tasks you are in such a hurry to go to accomplish in the first place.

WE CAN CHANGE IT NOW!

The good new is that this is something we can immediately stop. Each one of us has some level of responsibility for this problem. We are each responsible for our actions. This includes actions we take and those we don’t take. We are each responsible for stopping these preventable losses of life from occurring.

As Greg Cade, the U.S. fire administrator, has said so well: “Enough is enough. We need to start today as a profession to ensure that every firefighter buckles up. What adds to this tragedy is that it takes such little effort to ensure that every firefighter goes home safely at the end of the day, but we still we don’t buckle up—and we, again, have another preventable firefighter death.”

Like many others, I have spoken on this issue before. Yet, we still read death notifications about firefighters not wearing seat belts. Each of these deaths is preventable. I cannot understand why wearing seat belts is looked on with such disdain by so many firefighters. I challenge any firefighters to explain why they believe risking their lives, the lives of their fellow firefighters, and the well-being of their families is a part of their job.

Be a real hero! Arrive alive. Buckle your seat belt, and make sure every single person riding on that rig with you is also buckled in.

MICHAEL E. BOYLE, a 30-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief with the Orange County (CA) Fire Authority, where he is program manager for the Hazardous Materials Response Team and oversees its Joint Hazard Assessment Team. He is a task force leader for FEMA’s CA-TF-5 and the department’s Critical Incident Support Team. He is a graduate of Orange County’s Leadership Institute, the University of Redlands, and the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. He is an instructor for public, service, military, and private industries on hazmat emergency response, terrorism incident response, incident command, and emergency incident management.

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