HOW TO GET FIREFIGHTERS TO WEAR THEIR.SEAT BELTS

BY DR. BURTON A. CLARK, EFO, CFO

Only 55 percent of firefighters wear their seat belts.1 The number two cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths is vehicle crashes. There is a direct correlation between these two facts. But the bigger tragedy is that we, the fire service, know this problem exists and have not fixed it. If you are a chief, company officer, or a firefighter, you are responsible for fixing this problem in your department. There is no excuse for not wearing your seat belt and no excuse for not enforcing the fire department’s seat belt rule.

How do you get firefighters to wear seat belts? You ask them to do it. This is an easy answer, but it is not a simple task. There are four steps to seat belt use success.

First, it takes soul searching. Are you and your department committed to firefighter safety, or is it just a slogan? Does your behavior reflect your true values? Successful use of seat belts requires a 200 percent proficiency score. This means that 100 percent of the firefighters must wear their seat belts 100 percent of the time.

Second, it takes unlearning and relearning. Do your firefighters race out the door putting their bunker gear on as the apparatus speeds down the street because they do not want to get beat in by another company? Do your firefighters complain, “I can’t get my SCBA on with the seat belt.” “People will die if I’m not ready to save them the instant the fire truck arrives at the fire.” This is the same firefighter who doesn’t wear the seat belt on the return trip to the fire station. Someone put this dysfunctional thinking in his brain. You can learn to put your seat belt on without increasing the fire loss in your community.

Third, it takes engineering. If your apparatus is so old that it did not come with seat belts, have them installed. If you have only lap belts, have three-point belts installed. If for some reason the belts are not long enough to fit around your members, have longer belts installed. If there is a seat position without a seat belt, do not let anyone ride in it.

Fourth, and most important, it takes leadership. Do you have the courage to do the right thing even when it will make you unpopular? Can you be the one person who stands up to the crowd because it is the right thing to do?

Can one person make a difference? Can your department serve as a role model for seat belt usage? YES! The following case histories tell the seat belt story of four fire departments and the leaders who had the courage to do what is right. I asked these chiefs to tell their seat belt stories in their own words. We can all learn from them.

WASHINGTON (OH) TOWNSHIP FIRE DEPARTMENT

Chief Al Woo: One would think that communicating the need for vehicle safety would be relatively easy, especially for firefighters. It has been our experience, however, that this task was much easier to talk about than do.

Our seat belt experience began with a simple observation made by another professional “riding out” as a guest on one of our vehicles. He (Dr. Burt Clark) observed that many, if not all, of the firefighters assigned to that particular vehicle did not wear seat belts to or from the incidents to which they responded.2 I know it caused a great deal of concern to Dr. Clark, both in what he observed as well as to how to best inform me, the chief, about what he had experienced. After a couple of e-mail exchanges, it became obvious that Dr. Clark’s primary intentions were to ensure, as best possible, the safety of the firefighters. A second and more daunting realization was that since these issues were raised, I had an absolute obligation as chief to address them and keep our personnel safe.

On a subsequent visit, Dr. Clark, riding with another local department, had the opportunity to once again experience an “unbelted” response. This second incident eventually led to a very spirited discussion during a seminar attended by graduates of Ohio’s Executive Fire Officer Program.

Addressing this issue became more than “just do it,” as it became evident that safety is used often as a “buzzword” and is addressed when convenient. It also became obvious that addressing the seat belt issues was going to be anything less than convenient. It also brought up other issues that were just not expected.

As an example, our department has always stressed a rapid response that included many components such as notification, multiple-station placements, and the development of apparatus that are safe and practical. Over the years, additions and practices were developed for which the vehicles were just not designed. One of these “updates” was the addition of 45° walk-away SCBA brackets. Communicating that these brackets were not designed into the original apparatus and that their use was only an option if they could be safely integrated with seat belts became quite a challenge.

A second unexpected issue was that we had firefighters who, because of their size, had difficulty using seat belts, especially when wearing complete personal protective equipment (PPE). Unfortu-nately, as with many fire departments, these personnel offer multiple safety challenges: One is the use of seat belts, and the second the firefighter’s lack of physical fitness.

We as a department chose to address the issues in a number of ways. First, seat belt use became an immediate topic on a couple of our promotional exams. It was a way of gauging whether the potential officers really had the best interests of their crews in mind and how they would address the issues that arose from seat belt use. A second tactic was to immediately review the existing standard operating policy on motor vehicle safety to educate, train, and address issues that hindered the use of seat belts. A third approach has been to work closely with the manufacturer of our apparatus (located locally) in addressing the issues that meet our safety concerns as well as the manufacturer’s liability issues.

I am sure that many see their department’s personnel, equipment, and practices in the experiences that I’ve described. While extremely proud of both the department and personnel, I am not naïve enough to believe that we are unique or perfect. In our zeal to ensure the safety of others, we often forget or forgo our own safety—something that is neither wise nor excusable. In the end, it has become quite a journey but, ultimately, if all else failed, we had to communicate to all involved that safety was everybody’s responsibility and, yes, we had to “just do it.”

ATLANTIC CITY (NJ) FIRE DEPARTMENT

Battalion Chief Bob Palamaro: Decreasing line-of-duty deaths and changing safety behavior are very reachable goals. The recipe that has brought some positive results in Atlantic City includes a passionate change agent, honesty to admit your faults, leadership to rally the troops, identification of key people in the organization to lead change, and persistence to reach the goal.

On December 7, 2003, I arrived at the National Fire Academy (NFA) to begin a two-week course entitled “Leading Community Risk Reduction.” I was attending my second year of the Executive Officer curriculum, a program designed to develop future leaders in the fire service. The first day of the program always starts in the campus auditorium with an orientation program. Dr. Burt Clark was leading the orientation session that morning. He was lecturing on the importance of getting firefighters to wear their seat belts.

One statistic that really hit home and aroused my passion that morning was the number of firefighters (100) killed in the line of duty each year nationwide. Dr. Clark pointed out that heart attack while performing duties was the number one killer of firefighters; vehicle accidents while responding to and returning from incidents was the number two killer. Firefighters not wearing their seat belts was a significant contributing factor to the vehicle response statistic. The session ended that morning with Dr. Clark personally challenging everyone in the audience to go back home and make an effort to impact the line-of-duty death statistic by mandating firefighters in their department to wear their seat belts.

As fate would have it, Dr. Clark’s wife, Carolyn, was one of the instructors. During the next two weeks, I had the opportunity to converse with Dr. Clark a few times. During our conversations, I found out that both Clarks like to come to my hometown (Atlantic City) to visit. Their next trip would be in January 2004. During that visit, Dr. Clark would spend some time riding in my battalion chief car during my tour of duty.

While I was thrilled to have Dr. Clark as a new friend, I spent the next couple of weeks after leaving the NFA lamenting his next visit to Atlantic City. I knew one of the things Dr. Clark would be paying attention to was the seat belt behavior of my firefighters and, even more significantly, my own seat belt behavior. Even though New Jersey state law and my department mandate seat belt usage, the fact of the matter was that most people in the department chose to ignore both the law and the department order.

Pondering my dilemma, I realized if I was going to influence behavioral change to get seat belt compliance in my department, I had to be honest with myself in admitting my own noncompliance. I had to address and change my own behavior first. I wore my portable radio strap over my left shoulder with the radio hanging down my right side. When I got into the chief’s car, the radio rested on the seat belt connection, making it difficult to buckle up. It was easier not to buckle up so that I could free my mind to concentrate on the more important task of leading personnel at the scene.

A quick study of my response patterns and behaviors before entering the chief’s car allowed me to make a small adjustment to solve my buckle-up problem. Taking the radio off my shoulder before entering the car and laying it on the passenger seat allowed a smooth transition into the car, and buckling the belt became a simple task. I will admit that in the beginning I had to consciously think of the steps to follow, but soon thereafter the conscious effort became my new normal response routine.

The next hurdle was to convince my members to wear their seat belts. It had been two weeks since coming home from the NFA, and I felt my seat belt behavior had become consistent enough to challenge my people to wear their seat belts. The last thing I wanted was to pose a challenge to them and have inconsistent behavior on my part lead to accusations of hypocrisy and a short-circuiting of the behavioral change goal.

I thought a good time to challenge the firefighters to change their seat belt behavior would be with the first tour on New Year’s Day; the challenge could be in the form of a New Year’s resolution. New Year’s Day morning, I went around to the three stations in my battalion to collect the daily paperwork. While at the stations, I asked the captains to assemble their members. I talked to them about the lessons I had learned regarding seat belts on my visit to the NFA. I reminded them about the state law and the department order mandating seat belt usage. I asked them to take the time to read the article Dr. Clark had recently written on firefighter seat belt usage.3 I challenged them to make a New Year’s resolution to always wear their seat belts while riding on the apparatus.

Changing behavior is difficult, and the success or failure of this initiative ultimately rested with each individual’s personal commitment to change. Not to be overlooked is the role informal leaders can play in behavioral change. I identified a couple of well-respected, knowledgeable, and competent firefighters in my battalion. Getting their buy-in would go a long way in convincing the others to respond.

I explained to the company officers that it is a physical impossibility for a battalion chief to monitor every company responding to and returning from incidents. Next to the individual firefighter, the company officer had the most control over seat belt compliance. If the members did not allow their rig to roll out of the station unless every member was buckled up, the problem would be solved. I also asked the captains to evaluate their apparatus for environmental factors that may hinder seat belt usage.

We found that seven of our 10 front-line apparatus had engineering issues that prohibited seat belt usage, or made it terribly uncomfortable when more than four firefighters were in the apparatus. A new recruit class had just graduated; this gave us a short-lived luxury of having five-member companies for the past few months. One engine and one truck needed immediate retrofit, as two of our larger-framed captains could not fasten their belts while wearing full turnout gear. A new, longer belt corrected the problem in the engine; relocating an SCBA and ordering a new seatback solved the ladder issue.

We are currently contemplating cab modifications on six of our engines to accommodate five people safely buckled up. An EMS cabinet will be removed to allow the relocation of the interior seating; cargo netting and bungee cords will safely secure the equipment that was previously stored in the EMS compartment.

It has now been eight months since my return from the NFA. We have made significant strides in changing our behavior and reengineering our apparatus for safety, but the job is not done. We must be persistent to stay the course. We still have our lapses and sometimes forget to buckle up, but it is happening with less frequency. We are still struggling with budget constraints to complete our cab modifications, and we must continue on that front.

Can you reduce line-of-duty deaths by changing your safety behavior and have everyone buckle up? Yes! It will take passion, honesty, leadership, and persistence.

VIOLET TOWNSHIP (OH) FIRE DEPARTMENT

Assistant Chief John Eisel: The use of seat belts has been a topic of discussion in our organization for several years. It remains a topic of discussion at our monthly staff meetings. The issue was addressed by Chief Kenn Taylor and referred to International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3558 for review. With data, such as firefighter death and injury reports, showing why this is such an important safety issue, a task force of two company officers and two firefighters began their journey.

When the work of the task force was concluded, each shift was given a PowerPointT presentation of its findings and recommendations, which included the following:

  • Mandate an emergency driving class for all personnel.
  • Recommend CDL endorsements for all personnel.
  • Review dispatch criteria: Do we need all apparatus to respond on an emergency for certain types of calls?
  • Wear seat belts at all times while vehicles are in motion.
  • The officer and driver are responsible for making sure that all personnel are belted before the apparatus leaves the ramp.
  • Train on using (wearing) seat belts while in bunker gear and SCBA.
  • Attach seat belt extenders in apparatus as needed.
  • Come to a complete stop at red lights, four-way stops, and negative right-of-ways.
  • Proceed with “due regard” through controlled/regulated intersections after ensuring all other vehicles have stopped.
  • Pay attention to posted speed limits and road conditions.

At this time, we have implemented the task force’s recommendations other than the CDL endorsements. Several important factors have helped us to successfully implement these recommendations. During the “training” phase, a motorist struck a neighboring department’s engine head-on while it was returning from a run.

Our department responded to that incident, and the first-hand witnessing of the damage left an eternal impression on those who witnessed it. Fortunately, the firefighters’ injuries were not career ending, but they were significant. If they had not been wearing their seat belts, we could not begin to speculate how the outcome might have been different.

The second factor is that the recommendations implemented came from a task force of people committed to improving our personnel’s safety. In the preliminary stages, we had discussed removing the SCBAs from the cabs, to emphasize the importance of using seat belts. Taylor’s quote “It is more important to wear our seat belts than to put on our SCBAs” was controversial, but it motivated our members to find a viable solution to this issue.

As mentioned, this issue is still the first topic presented at our monthly staff meetings, as a reminder to our officers to keep this issue in front of the members. Compliance has been very good, but it did not happen overnight.

REVERE (MA) FIRE DEPARTMENT

Deputy Chief John Moschella: This study involved approximately 20 firefighters from my group. Since the culture in the department was generally to refrain from using seat belts, my initial intent was to find out why fire personnel did not buckle up when riding in apparatus. A brief questionnaire, with the following questions, was distributed to the group:

  • Do you use seat belts when riding on apparatus?
  • If your reply is sometimes or no, then why?
  • Do you know if there is a seat belt policy in the Revere Fire Department?
  • How do you feel about a seat belt policy?

Several weeks previous to this survey, company commanders were given Dr Burton Clark’s article “How Do You Get Firefighters to Wear Their Seat Belts?”4 The intent here was to enlighten officers and provide them with background information. The theoretical objective was to put in motion a change model based around facilitative; informational; attitudinal; political; or, in this case, authoritative factors.

In brief, the survey showed that most firefighters did not wear their seat belts. The most prevailing reason was that since they were never instructed to do so, they chose not to wear one. Few knew it was a departmental rule.

The next step was to moderate discussion pertaining to the seat belt issue. An event that occurred in the department around this time facilitated this project.

By coincidence, the fire department had just sworn in 14 new firefighters, who were immediately instructed that wearing seat belts was mandatory, according to department rules and regulations. The onus of responsibility was now on each company commander to enforce this regulation for the recruits. Consequently, as one might say, “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.” Armed with the information from the article and empowered with the regulation, henceforth to be enforced, officers from each apparatus saw to it that all personnel buckled up.

The seat belt issue is by no means legitimized. It will only become so if each officer and each firefighter makes a conscious effort to use the device. As the group commander, I shall continuously remind personnel. Hopefully, each firefighter will do the same.

NATIONAL HELP FOR LOCAL CAMPAIGNS

If you plan to become a local fire department seat belt leader, you have backup from national organizations, private industry, and the law.

Fire service organizations are focusing attention on seat belts. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Line-of-Duty Death Prevention campaign has identified seat belts as one of the 16 initiatives of the program. At the 2004 International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).annual conference banquet, the outgoing president, Chief Ernest Mitchell, and the incoming president, Chief Bob Dipoli, reminded all fire chiefs that it is their responsibility to ensure seat belt compliance in their fire departments.

National Fire Protection Association 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, states:

  • Section 6.3.1—”All persons riding in fire apparatus shall be seated and belted securely by seat belts ….”
  • Section 6.3.2—”Seat belts shall not be released or loosened for any purpose while the vehicle is in motion, including the donning of respiratory protection equipment or protective clothing.”

The Fire Apparatus Manufacturers Association (FAMA), the Con-gressional Fire Services Institute, the Fire and Emergency Manufac-turers and Services Association, and the IAFC have endorsed NFPA 1901 Annex D, which outlines what needs to be done to retrofit 50 percent of the apparatus in service today. Item D.3, “Upgrading or Refurbishing Fire Apparatus,” Recommendation 13, states: “Seat belts are available for every seat and are new or in serviceable condition.”

The United State Fire Administration’s Web page, “Applied Research & Technology: Emergency Vehicle Safety” (www.usfa.fema.gov/inside-usfa/research/safety/vehicle/shtm), contains useful information and links to help with your seat belt campaigns.

Fire service private industry is also trying to help us use seat belts. The VFIS program “Operation Safe Arrival” focuses on adopting safe driving practices for apparatus at intersections and seat belt use by all firefighters. In addition, the VFIS Accident and Sickness policy pays an additional death benefit for a member who was wearing a properly fastened seat belt at the time of the fatal motor vehicle accident.

FAMA has encouraged its members to promote seat belt safety in their advertisements and company literature. It has suggested the following taglines for print media: “The Best Firefighters WEAR SEAT BELTS,” “Wear Seat Belts and Live,” “Buckle Up and Live,” and “Seat Belts—You’ll Live with Them.”

Finally, in 13 states it is the law that all firefighters wear seat belts. In 32 states, seat belt use is required only for passengers in the front seats. Five states exempt firefighters from using seat belts, and one state has no adult seat belt law.5 Do you know in which category your state fits? If your state has one of the less stringent seat belt laws for firefighters, the state chiefs’ association and state firefighters’ association clearly have one of their next legislation agenda items identified for them.

INTERNATIONAL ADVICE

When I explained that 45 percent of the members of the U.S. fire service were not wearing their seat belts to Don Henry, CFPS, CD instructor, Auto/Diesel & Fire Apparatus Maintenance, Lakeland College, Vermilion, Alberta, Canada, at the recent IAFC conference, he solved the problem in one sentence, “They need a spanking!” Not wearing your seat belt is childish. The safety of the fire service and firefighters is not child’s play.

How do you get firefighters to wear seat belts? You ask them to do it: “Put on your seat belt.” That’s an order we can all live with because firefighters need it, spouses expect it, and families deserve it.

Author’s note: It has been my honor to play a small part in these four seat belt success stories. Yet, I have been a failure in my own organization. Try as I may, the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department (LVFD), Company 10, Prince George’s County, Maryland, does not have a 200 percent passing score on using seat belts. The LVFD is an excellent organization with wonderful members and a proud history spanning 102 years of “Service for Others.” We would all risk our lives to save each other heroically. I call on the members and officers of the LVFD who do use seat belts to have the courage to help our brothers and sisters who do not to “See the Light and Buckle Up.”

References

1. Fire Pole Question, Firehouse.com.. Nov. 10, 2003.

2. Clark, B.A., “To be or not to be a tattletale,” Firehouse.com, Oct. 1, 2003.

3. Clark, B.A., “199% correct is not a passing score in the fire service,” Firehouse.com, Dec. 22, 2003.

4. Clark, B.A., “How do you get firefighters to wear their seat belts?” Firehouse.com, May 14, 2004.

5. Grafton, B; R. Thompson, T. Gies, C. Dusil, C. Smith, B. Dowers, “Inter- Personal Dynamics in Fire Service Organizations,” National Fire Academy, group course project “Seat Belt Usage in the Fire Service” (Seat belt law analysis based on Oct. 2003 data), July 26, 2004.

DR. BURTON A. CLARK, EFO, CFO, a 34-year veteran of the fire service, is the Management Science Program chair at the National Fire Academy and serves as deputy director of a National Emergency Operations Team for the Department of Homeland Security. Previously, he was a firefighter in Washington, DC, and assistant chief in Laurel, Maryland. Clark is a part-time instructor for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, an adjunct professor of research at Grand Canyon University, and dissertation advisor at Nova Southeastern University. He has a degree in business administration from Strayer University in Massachusetts, a master of arts degree in curriculum and instruction from Catholic University, and an Ed.D. in adult education from Nova Southeastern University. He studied fire science at Montgomery College, emergency management at the Emergency Management Institute, and national security at the National Defense University and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. He is a nationally certified Fire Officer IV and Chief Fire Officer designee. He writes and lectures on fire service research, safety, and professional development.

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