QUESTION: Does your department have a written seat belt policy? Who is responsible for enforcing it? How can we get firefighters to wear seat belts?
OUR DEPARTMENT’S SEAT belt policy simply states (and I paraphrase) that all members shall wear a seat belt if the vehicle is moving. Failure to do so is a safety violation with a pretty stiff penalty. It is the individual’s responsibility to wear a seat belt. If the officer is aware (“on notice”-that’s a legal term for the lawsuit when it comes, and it will come!), he is responsible as well. In some states, the driver of the apparatus is also responsible. Some officers and drivers ask before pulling out of the door. Others don’t! Some get stung! Some don’t! Not everyone dies playing Russian roulette.
-John “Skip” Coleman, assistant chief, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.
Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,
Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One
Response: Our policy requires the use of safety belts at all times when the apparatus is in motion. Our members follow the policy; enforcement does not seem to be a problem. The policy is based on the State of Washington Administrative Code (WAC 296-305-04503), which requires all persons riding on fire apparatus to be seated and secured by seat belts anytime the vehicle is in motion.
Our “old school” or litigious environment requires someone be responsible for enforcing this policy. This implies having a Theory X “watchdog” manager who carries a big stick lay down the law, watch like a hawk, threaten the firefighters with a big stick, and hit them if they don’t wear their seat belt. This is not a good leadership practice and hasn’t been effective; otherwise, the fire service wouldn’t be addressing this issue, again, today.
Firefighters need to wear seat belts. It’s unfortunate that some choose not to or forget to wear them. I hope we can overcome this hurdle by continuing to educate our firefighters. We can, and do, learn from the mistakes of other firefighters. Current philosophies and programs such as Everyone Goes Home and Near-Miss Reporting are progressive methods for this message. Our “Buddy System” begins as we get in the cab of the apparatus. Let’s check ourselves, and then our buddy. Let’s look out for each other to keep each other safe and out of trouble.
Mike Mason, lieutenant,
Downers Grove (IL) Fire Department
Response: Our departmental policy is simple and direct: “Wear your seat belt when the vehicle is in motion.” No excuses. Unfortunately, the progression to safe fireground behaviors is not always the case; other factors influence unsafe behaviors relating to seat belt usage. Policies sometimes provoke these unsafe behaviors, especially in the area related to the life-saving application of securing yourself to your seat when the vehicle is racing toward the call for help. The key word here is racing; racing to responses doesn’t apply just to the speed of the apparatus. It also applies to our being ready to dismount from the rig ready to go to work fully dressed.
Many departments establish rules and regulations that direct responders to arrive at an emergency in the community within four to six minutes. This is obviously dramatically increased in rural communities. Many departments should replace the number of minutes with the words “Timely Response” to guarantee the safe behaviors regarding the use of seat belts.
In most fire apparatus, there is little room to just sit in a seat, let alone wear all the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and the SCBA while applying your seat belt before the vehicle moves out the door. Despite the restricted area, we find that we are restrained or entangled by something when we arrive on-scene and begin to dismount the apparatus.
Poor design features sometimes make it necessary for firefighters to undo and redo seat-belt applications. What’s even worse is to find that you can’t engage the seat belt while wearing your gear.
We need only to take a hard, honest look at our driving habits and the line-of-duty deaths and injuries to recognize that it’s time for a change. That change should begin with policy, followed by training to ensure that all adhere to the policy. We should secure ourselves every time we go out the door when using lights and sirens. When fire apparatus are found lying on their side, it’s because the driver of that rig was trying to avoid hitting the approaching vehicle and anything else that could contribute to a larger loss of life in the area. Trying to steer 37,000 pounds or more quickly usually has only one end result-our big rig’s losing its center of gravity and landing in a final resting position no one anticipated.
We have to change our thinking regarding the use of seat belts. This involves administrators, manufacturers, policies, procedures, and training. Manufacturers can enhance seat belt usage through better design features. Those that mount SCBAs in seats for quick donning along with rip cords of one type or another to release them may address the need for speed but also create entanglement problems and make it hard to maneuver, reach, or operate in our PPE. Maybe we should be donning SCBAs at the fire scene instead of compromising our safe arrival for the sake for speed. We might have the ability to catch our breaths and read a good size-up before racing in. We’ve spent countless hours training for emergencies, yet we take risks before we get out the door and while en route to emergencies.
Consistently using seat belts depends on training and policies that work with the equipment and apparatus we use. We must keep the driving speed down. Leaders must diligently keep members aware of the risks and impress on officers and firefighters that it is their duty to act when other members fail to use their seat belts.
Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York
Response: The use of seat belts is required on department vehicles. Company officers are expected to enforce the policy; individual firefighters are held responsible for compliance.
There are, unfortunately, a number of obstacles that must be overcome to get everyone to use the belts. Tight quarters on some newer apparatus can make it awkward to fasten a seat belt while wearing bunker gear. The size of a fire apparatus may also create an illusion of “safety” to some personnel. In addition, bad habits or traditions are difficult to break.
Firefighters have to be trained early in their careers to get into the habit of buckling up despite the excitement and distractions encountered on an emergency response. Statistics probably won’t mean much to a recruit school audience, but vivid photographs of apparatus accidents or talks by survivors of serious traffic incidents may leave an impression. As personnel are promoted and trained for the company officer rank, seat belt use should be reemphasized as an important factor in keeping their crews safe. The development of restraining devices ergonomically designed for people wearing bulky, restrictive bunker gear would also go a long way toward ensuring seat belt compliance.
The National Safety Council tells us there is a vehicle fatality in this country every 12 minutes. And, according to the United States Fire Administration, an average of 25 percent of firefighter fatalities occur while responding to or returning from the emergency scene. There are factors the fire service can’t control, and some inherent risks must be faced in our line of work. Refusing to take a few seconds to attach a seat belt is certainly not one of them.
Craig H. Shelley,
fire protection advisor
Response: Our department operates under a corporate vehicle safety policy as well as fire department standard operating procedures (SOPs) regarding vehicle safety. Both policies require vehicle operators and those riding in company vehicles to be properly seat-belted. Apparatus operators are directed through our SOP not to move the fire apparatus until they are sure the entire crew is properly attired in full protective clothing, seated, and securely belted in place.
Throughout my 40-year fire service career, I have seen many changes in our safety culture, all of them for the better. Unfortunately, most, if not all, of these changes have been the result of firefighter injuries and deaths. When I started in the fire service, if any seat belts were on the apparatus, they were either buried under the seat cushion or removed and used to hold equipment in place or to sling flashlights over our shoulders. How many firefighters have been killed or injured because they failed to use seat belts and their officers allowed them not to use seat belts? I remember stories of firefighters being thrown from the back step of apparatus. How many firefighters died until this practice was outlawed? Yet, we still read about firefighters falling from the back step of a moving apparatus.
Riding in an enclosed cab and buckling your seat belt are fundamental to preventing injuries and death. These principles should be taught from day one at recruit school along with the proper use of our PPE. Firefighters, drivers, and officers should be held accountable for their own failures to use seat belts as well as the failures of those riding alongside them.
Gary Seidel, chief,
Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department
Response: Our policy states: “All personnel in moving apparatus will be buckled in.” This means while riding in any fire apparatus, rescue squads, ambulances, sedans, and so on. How do we enforce it? Mostly, through the honor system.
All members realize the importance of preventing injuries and reducing line of duty-related injuries and fatalities. Our membership also realizes that Oregon state law requires everyone to buckle up when in a moving vehicle, which includes fire apparatus. In addition, our members are aware that if they were involved in an accident that resulted in an injury or a fatality, and they weren’t buckled in, their workers’ compensation benefits could be in jeopardy. So for us, the honor system is working.
In January 2005, we had a near-miss tragedy between one of our engine companies and a Tri-Met light rail train. This accident illustrated several key points in reference to en-route safety and reinforced the department’s seat belt policy:
1 This incident could have had a different outcome. So, remember all personnel in moving apparatus will be buckled in.
2 When approaching a blind intersection, take that extra precaution to ensure the safety of all. Even though the fire department had control of the traffic signal control device, we realize from this incident that the light rail train operator’s human error failed to recognize he was supposed to stop.
3 Let’s continue to stress safety on our side to ensure we never have an incident of this type again.
4 If it is predictable, it is preventable.
There are no ifs, ands, or buts: All personnel in moving apparatus will be buckled in.
Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant,
Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services
Response: We have a policy in place. We are approximately 85 percent effective in having members wearing their seat belts. Although this percentage is not bad, it is not the 100 percent needed. All of us have heard the excuses from firefighters and officers for not wearing their seat belts. These excuses could take up an entire page and are not worth the paper on which they are written.
If a chief officer sees you without a seat belt on, you will hear about it; but our chiefs are not riding the engines, the company officers are. This is where the company officer comes in. It is the company officer’s job not only to follow the rules but also to set an example. Although all members are accountable, the company officer must be able to step up, take command, and ensure the safety and 100 percent compliance of the company.
We must educate our members on the importance of strict seat belt use while responding to and returning from an alarm. I would rather that my members take five seconds to buckle the waist strap on their SCBA on arrival at a scene than not be properly belted in while responding.
On January 3, 1979, one of our engine companies was involved in a serious accident while responding to a structure fire. All firefighters involved suffered minor injuries. I use this example because the firefighter trapped in the jumpseat that day was my captain when I was hired. He stressed the importance of seat belts from personal experience.
John O’Neal, chief,
Manassas Park (VA) Fire Department
Response: Our department has a written policy mandating the use of seat belts. The driver of the vehicle bears the full responsibility for complying with the content of the policy in the Emergency Vehicle Response and Operations procedure.
Company officers bear the responsibility for the safety and well-being of all crew members under their command, including wearing seat belts during response and nonemergency driving. Individuals are also responsible for their own safety and for adhering to all policies and procedures. This should serve as a check-and-balance system for compliance.
As the chief officer and leader for the department, I would like to think that compliance is at 100 percent; however, I suspect that it is not at times. And that responsibility is on me. It takes a culture shift and change for full compliance under all circumstances and an environment in which the leadership promotes a safe and healthful workplace. I believe we have that environment.
However, in a small organization that hires certified personnel who often come from other career organizations or volunteer departments, coupled with a relatively young workforce, we find ourselves modifying past learned behaviors for full compliance for our safety policies along with other administrative or operational policies. We seek this compliance by mandating that individuals follow SOPs, promoting safe practices in safety briefings, in-service training, and EVOC updates and reinforcing safe practices by participating in the annual safety stand-down. It takes a constant effort of training and reinforcement for 100-percent compliance because of the complacency of human nature-“It’ll never happen to me”-and the mindset of rushing to the scene of an emergency to help. However, the effort is worth the time spent, to protect our members and the public.
Bobby Shelton, firefighter,
Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department
Response: Our department has had a written seat belt policy for some time. It has always been the company officers’ responsibility to enforce it. In fact, part of our written procedure states that the apparatus is not to move until all members are seated and belted. One of our district chiefs is the department safety officer. He is very safety conscious. He responds to working fires to ensure safety compliance and investigates accidents involving apparatus within the department. He regularly sends out safety bulletins and case studies of incidents involving apparatus and personnel from around the country.
In late June while responding to a call, one of our engine companies was hit by a pickup truck that crossed the double yellow line. The engine company crew was seated and belted and was not injured. The driver of the civilian vehicle was critically injured. This incident really drives home the need for wearing seat belts.
I recently participated in a firefighter anthropometry study using 3D scanning and whole body measurements conducted by Total Contact Inc. in association with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. The study’s goal is to help develop better safety and restraint systems for first responders. One of the questions posed to the volunteers was why they don’t use seat belts when it is a national law. Answers ranged from ill-fitting belts to not enough room to move while in bunker gear, and everything in between.
How many times do we respond to motor vehicle accidents and say that had the occupants been wearing safety belts they would have survived or been less seriously injured? More and more, we are hearing of accidents involving fire apparatus. The same question could be asked of us. Ultimately, it is not the job of the company officer or the safety officer to make sure we buckle up. It is the individual responder’s job. We do it in our personal vehicles; we make sure our families are belted in. What is the difference when we are at work? We owe it to ourselves and our families to be as safe as possible, and that includes the use of safety belts in our apparatus.
Richard Royston, chief,
Delhi Township (MI) Fire Department
Response: Our officers and personnel enforce our department’s policy. We believe that we have 100 percent compliance. Quite simply, the trucks don’t move unless the personnel are “down and buckled.”
Our written policy has been in place for about eight years. During that time, our department has preached, discussed, and preached again about seat belt use. As a result, the use of seat belts has become “peer-managed,” and members remind each other about using the seat belts.
I believe that the need for seat belts needs to be compared with the need for SCBA units and PASS alarm devices. The belts are there to save your life, as is the firefighting equipment. We wouldn’t think of going into a burning building without an SCBA, and we should not think about riding on a moving apparatus without a seat belt around us.
Bruce Peacock, chief,
County of Brant Fire, Paris,
Response: Our department is of a fair size. The use of seat belts is law within our province but only for our public ambulances and fire; the police are excluded from the regulation. Many firefighters in the cities are ex-police officers and realize we face the same problems as the police.
We must move fast when we get to the fire. We have equipment to wear. It can be difficult to get the point across. If the police had some sort of system in their cars, it might take some of the problem away. The police (I was a member at one time) get into more accidents than any other emergency responders. A city like Toronto writes off one car a month because of accidents. Think what it would be like if the ambulance or fire department did that.
It is also hard for firefighters to realize that they can get hurt when riding in something as big and as heavy as a fire truck. They develop the attitude, “It can’t happen to me.”
When the chief and I are at the truck, the members fasten their seat belts, but the rest of the time, it is hit-and-miss even though it is law and our SOGs state it will be done. We maintain a lockdown on equipment on the truck, including the SCBA. The firefighters see that as being belted in if they have the SCBA on with the belts and the unit is locked.
Some things are hard to argue, and I have been in the back seat and can see where they are coming from, but I also know that the law is the law, even though it may be difficult to work with.
Firefighters are concerned about safety, but they look at this as how far do we go? We take chances going into burning buildings; they’re not made safer for us. Builders put homes together with lightweight construction and make our jobs more and more dangerous. Seat belts will save us “till we get to the fire.”
I think we need a system that would give us the safety yet not have us slow down with more belts. Is the SCBA lock system safe enough to be classified as a safety belt? Maybe that would reduce some of the problem, at least for the crew in the back, if they have it on.
Laws make it hard to do our job. We have some government offices that are working to make our fire departments more regulated than public companies when it comes to safety. It will end up killing the people we are trying to save.
David Murphy, captain,
Perkins Township (OH) Fire Department
Response: With traffic incidents fast approaching heart attacks as the number one killer of firefighters, our department has adopted a stringent seat belt policy. All personnel are required to be seat-belted at all times when riding in a department vehicle. The only exception is during the transportation of a patient. Personnel do not have to be seat-belted if they have to treat a patient.
This policy has been the cause of some concern when it comes to response to fire calls. It is the responsibility of the engineer and the officer not to move the vehicle until all firefighters are belted in. Now that apparatus have audible alarms when firefighters are in a seat and not belted, it is easy to know when the infraction occurs. However, several firefighters have voiced their concern that it is often difficult to don an SCBA while in a seat belt. A solution to this is not donning the SCBA until the apparatus arrives on-scene. This accomplishes two things. First, it gives the officer a few extra seconds to size up the incident; and as anyone who has sat in the right front seat knows, those few seconds can be precious. Second, it allows the firefighters to collect their thoughts and think about what their tasks are instead of trying to put on an SCBA in a moving vehicle.
The bottom line is, seat belts are no longer an option; they are a requirement. We cannot preach about safety and then allow our firefighters to risk their lives unnecessarily. Seat belts aren’t the end-all cure to motor vehicle accident deaths, but they are a good start.
Frank J. Colelli, captain,
Montgomery Township (PA) Department of Fire Services
Response: In our combination department, the director of fire services issued a directive that says it is mandatory for all members to wear seat belts while riding or operating in any department apparatus. It is the responsibility of the officer and the operator to enforce the policy.
As far as getting members to wear the seat belts, we can do a few things: (1) It is a state law in Pennsylvania; that should be enough to convince the members. However, if that is not enough, officers and operators can educate the members on the countless unnecessary firefighter LODDs or injuries caused by members’ not wearing their seat belts.
There are a ton of excuses for not wearing seat belts. Personally, I think it is time we put the excuses aside and do the right thing that will bring firefighters home at the end of the tour.
Skip Heflin, captain,
Hall County (GA) Fire Services
Response: Our written policy requires that anyone riding in a department vehicle must wear their seat belt. We consider it an individual responsibility. We try to place enforcement responsibility on the engineer and the company officer. We tell the engineers, “Don’t move the truck if everyone is not belted in.” In our training, we study past cases in which engineers or the company officer had been named in lawsuits for not enforcing seat belt use. In our Basic Apparatus Operator course, we spend an entire day on driving home this responsibility.
In the classroom, and when driving, we reinforce the same principles. If the student moves the apparatus without the instructor’s being belted in, the student fails. Our vehicles now include brightly colored material for seat belts so anyone can easily see when they are being worn. Before taking a class at our academy, students are required to sign a seat belt use commitment form. We tell the story of the captain who got in the truck and told the engineer, “Let’s go.” The engineer refused to move the truck because the captain was not belted in. The captain began to get angry at the engineer, but the engineer wouldn’t give in. Finally, the captain belted up. The captain later apologized to the engineer. It took time for the captain to realize that the engineer was just being responsible for the safety of the crew. I can’t remember the source of that story. It may even be fiction, but it drives home the point. Only through a change in the firefighters’ culture will they wear their seat belts.
Kenneth E. Morgan, battalion chief,
Clark County (NV) Fire Department
Response: Our SOPs, Section 2, state: “All Clark County Fire Department employees are required to use seat belts when operating a county vehicle. The officer in charge of the apparatus is responsible for enforcing said requirements.” This specifically puts the responsibility on the company officer.
Although this is fine on paper, it truly does not end there. The first and foremost individual with the responsibility for using seat belts is that individual in the seat belt who may be saved. Every firefighter, engineer, company officer, battalion chief, and rank has a responsibility to wear seat belts and set the example for their peers. We all choose this occupation knowing that things can happen and that some things are not foreseeable. Getting ejected from a rolling fire truck is.
We must remain diligent in enforcing this safety system regardless of whether we are responding to a call or going for groceries. It is no less important than PPE or SCBA. You can’t expect your rookies to wear seat belts if you don’t. Enforcing the policy by setting the example and taking personal responsibility for your own safety regardless of rank is key to changing the iron-grip culture in the fire service.
Michael A. Reinhardt, captain,
Kitchener (CA) Fire Department
Response: Our seat belt policy puts the onus on each individual to be seated and buckled whenever a vehicle is not in Park with the emergency brake applied.
The issue at this time is enforcing this policy. Most of our current fleet do not have a buckle buzzer warning system. Therefore, seat belt use is difficult to monitor. The duty officers from the front seat have limited opportunity and time to supervise the personnel in the rear of the vehicles. Of course, individual firefighters do not want to create an issue regarding this subject, even though it is they who will be at personal risk when their partners become projectiles who will land on them, injuring or killing them, in a crash situation. However, we are changing over our fleet, and it will be a short time before many of our response units are equipped with audible alarm mechanisms. These devices will assist in monitoring personnel.
It is imperative that we educate our members and have management take a hard line on enforcing the policy. Sometimes a heavy hand is the best way to change the ostrich mentality of those who do not want to accept the fact that seat belts save lives in our industry.
Len Nauman, safety officer,
Burkburnett (TX) Volunteer Fire Department
Response: Our 31-member department has a written SOG outlining our seat belt policy whether responding in an apparatus or privately owned vehicle. SOGs that deal with vehicle operation or response restate that policy. The policy is simple: Seat belts must be worn. Each member of the department is responsible for following the policy, but enforcement starts with the chief. The driver has the responsibility to ensure that each member riding in an apparatus is wearing a seat belt before placing the apparatus in motion. Almost every state has a seat belt law.
During a response, firefighters seem to be the major offenders in not wearing them. The biggest problem the fire service has to overcome is the attitude that wearing a seat belt slows down a firefighter’s exit from the apparatus. In most cases, we have proved that running lights and sirens does not significantly improve response time, but we can’t get firefighters to understand that the second it takes to buckle and unbuckle a seat belt may save their life without impeding their response.
Taking disciplinary action against firefighters for not wearing a seat belt may work in the short term, but that’s not the answer. A cultural change is going to have to take place to statistically prove using seat belts saves lives without sacrificing response. Drivers and officers are going to have to lead by example. Accidents happen. Firefighters are going to have to realize their apparatus do not make them invincible.
Ed Herrmann, captain,
Boynton Beach (FL) Fire Rescue
Response: Our SOG on seat belts is very clear and brief: “Seat belts will be worn at all times when the vehicle is in motion. The company officer will authorize the driver to proceed when he is sure all personnel have their seat belts secured. For all those vehicles that do not have a company officer assigned, the driver will make sure all personnel have their seat belts secured.”
One would think that any fire-rescue professional given guidelines this specific would be able to carry them out. After all, we are the folks who have to witness tragedy after tragedy in which people have died in what would have been survivable accidents had they only worn this simple piece of equipment.
That said, the nature of our business makes 100 percent compliance difficult. We all know how awkward it is to attempt to start bunkering out while responding to a call when wearing a seat belt. Since our department handles medical transport, I see our SOG bent on a regular basis. When continuing patient care en route to a hospital, it is nearly impossible to remain belted at all times. These emergency situations make a temporary risk understandable, but there is absolutely no justification for not wearing a belt every time we are in a vehicle for nonemergency travel.
In the end, barring some technological advancement, it will always come down to firefighters looking out for each other, reminding themselves and their partners when there is no valid reason not to be belted.
Stan Mettinger Jr., captain,
Brooksville (FL) Fire Department
Response: The city policy is that seat belts be worn in all city-owned vehicles if the vehicles are so equipped. At one point, our (former) city manager issued a directive to the police chief stating that any city employee observed not using a seat belt was to be ticketed. I do not think it was ever done.
Our fire chief has a policy that seat belts be worn at all times. We have a significant problem enforcing it because of the ambiguous language in the City Rules for Discipline. Most employees comply without problem, but there are a few who do not just because “they can get by with it.” My shift personnel know that if they do not, they will be written up and counseled. I feel that SOGs should have stronger language that makes the requirement for seat belt use clear and explains the ramifications of not wearing them. Without strong backing from administration, enforcement is a monumental task, despite the documented benefits of using seat belts.
Richard V. Bickmore, training officer,
Moorestown (NJ) Fire Department
Response: Our department has had a SOP on the books for many years, but it wasn’t enforced rigorously enough. With the advent of the Everyone Goes Home campaign, a renewed interest prompted department officers to begin reminding members before responding to each call or training session. For added emphasis, driver/operators have been empowered not to move the apparatus until everyone buckles up. Since then, the message has been consistently reinforced, and the results have been satisfactory.
Steve Kraft, deputy chief,
Richmond Hill Fire Department,
Response: Over the past 12 months, our department has tried hard to educate staff on the use of seat belts. Our training division put together and delivered to staff a great program that included pictures, videos, and reasons for wearing seat belts. Compliance isn’t 100 percent (yet), but the majority of our people know the importance of wearing seat belts. Our staff members are told that seat belts are mandatory. It is written in policy and reinforced daily. I assume the company officers are responsible to ensure everyone is buckled up; after all, they are the designated adults. If a platoon chief notices someone is not wearing a seat belt, it is his responsibility to bring this lack of judgment to the firefighter’s (and officer’s) attention. Wearing seat belts on fire apparatus is a cultural issue. I believe the way to ensure 100 percent compliance is through teaching, coaching, counseling, and discipline (if needed). There are no excuses for not buckling up. It just might save your life.
Micky A. Blain, captain,
Fairview (TX) Fire Rescue
Response: Our all-volunteer department has a written seat belt policy and other SOGs regarding responses. I believe that, as the apparatus officer, it is my responsibility to ensure everyone is buckled up and that the ultimate responsibility for the apparatus is mine-mine alone! I ask every time before we roll, “Is everyone buckled up?” I have assigned the senior firefighter in the back the duty of visually checking for this before we roll.
Paul J. Urbano, captain,
Anchorage (AK) Fire Department
Response: Our driving policy states: “No department vehicle may be placed in motion unless and until all persons are properly seated with seat belts fastened.” It also states: “In the case of MICUs (ambulances), personnel in the patient compartment may elect not to wear seat belts if their use would compromise the employee’s ability to provide patient care.”
Individuals are responsible for wearing their seat belts; engineers are in control of the apparatus; and, ultimately, company officers are responsible for enforcing the policy.
The fire service is in the midst of a “safety” cultural shift. When SCBAs were first introduced, they weren’t immediately or completely embraced. Unfortunately, seat belt use in fire trucks isn’t either. We must be self-disciplined and get past the “it won’t happen to us” attitude.
Too many firefighters are killed because they do not wear their seat belts. We must embrace this simple solution to reduce line-of-duty deaths. We must consider the legal and monetary implications as well.
Attention apparatus manufacturers: Design cabs so we can eliminate excuses such as “I can’t reach it” and “I can’t get my SCBA on.”
Attention chiefs: Demand better seat belt-designed cabs from apparatus manufacturers, write a policy mandating seat belt use, and hold us accountable when we choose not to wear them.
Attention company officers: Lead by example. Wear your seat belts. If we don’t police ourselves, we may be forced to do unpopular things like placing SCBAs in compartments.
Attention apparatus operators: Don’t move the vehicle until everyone is seat-belted.
Tom Rinaldi, commissioner,
Stillwater (NY) Fire District
Response: Our department just formalized a written policy that calls for the use of seat belts in the vehicles. The policy is part of an overall vehicle use policy that includes training standards and use and response guidelines for all of our equipment. There are two challenges: The first is personnel related; the second is function related. Enforcing the policy is the responsibility of the Board of Fire Commissioners, the chief officers, the apparatus officer in command, and the driver. We are also posting in the station all motor vehicle accidents that involve fire apparatus in an attempt to change the culture among members. The one thing making it very difficult is the design of seat belts in the apparatus. Older equipment is severely deficient; the old-style belts don’t fit well, even without PPE on. Some of the newer equipment is deficient and difficult to buckle-you can’t find the female clip end along with the SCBA equipment straps and the close proximity of the seats. Our newest vehicle, yet to be delivered, has done a much better job. We’ll see.
What will get firefighters to wear seat belts? It is simple. Make it easy. Make it transparent. I think that with all of the pictures and publicity, our firefighters are convinced, but it’s not easy. Even if the manufacturers have to make four-point harnesses, they should do it. We need to have the engineer/designers put on the PPE, sit in the seats they design, and come up with an easy way to use the belts.
Matt Weil, captain,
North Oakland County (MI) Fire Authority
Response: It is simple. Wear the belt. It will save your life. The apparatus is not supposed to move until everyone is buckled. It is that simple. However, In the back of the ambulance, we are supposed to buckle up when patient care allows-which, in my opinion, is most of the time.
What really bothers me is that I take the time to e-mail articles about accidents that happened not only in the fire service but also in civilian life to say, in effect, “Meet the other guy. It can happen to anyone.” It is foolish that responders who see the carnage of human life need to be “reminded” to put on such a basic safety device as a seat belt. I am just dumbfounded.
Julie Miller, deputy chief,
Inuvik (NT, Canada) Fire Department
Response: Our department adopted a formal seat belt policy approximately three years ago, primarily in response to the large numbers of firefighters being injured or killed in motor vehicle incidents while responding to and returning from calls.
Changing opinions and habits proved to be extremely difficult, especially when many firefighters adopted their officer’s actions. Subsequently, enforcement of this policy has fallen on the officer assigned to/responsible for the unit. Each apparatus must have an officer onboard prior to departing. This officer is to ensure that all firefighters are restrained prior to the apparatus’ leaving the hall. Although we have this policy in place, ensuring that all firefighters are restrained prior to leaving the hall has taken a long time to enact/enforce. Seat belt use, it appeared, was quite dependent on what the officer had chosen to do.
By adapting the policy of “no apparatus moves until all occupants are restrained,” we found that we changed attitudes by forcing a behavioral change. Since the inception of this policy, our department has been quite successful in ensuring all occupants are restrained.
Eric Miller, lieutenant,
Parksville (B.C., Canada) Fire Department
Response: Our department has a strict seat belt policy: Seat belts will be worn at all times when an apparatus is in motion. No seat belt, and the apparatus does not move. This is spelled out very clearly in our SOGs. It is up to the apparatus officer to enforce the policy. Prior to moving, the apparatus officer verbally confirms that everyone is belted in.
I believe that there are two ways to ensure firefighters are wearing their seat belts. Obviously, the first is strict enforcement by the company officer. The second is through education. By posting and discussing LODDs that occur because of failure to wear a seat belt, we can clearly demonstrate the disastrous results that may occur should the apparatus be involved in an accident.
Jim Grady III, chief,
Frankfort (IL) Fire Department
Response: We have a seat belt policy; it is enforced by the officer and the driver. This might appear to be a double standard, but it is a backup policy: Both front-end people are responsible for ensuring the safe delivery of our fire/rescue team members.
The driver/operator is responsible for safe operation. To correct a problem or to make sure that seat belts are worn, how about having the engineer/operator not move until all are seated and belted in and stop while en route to a call if someone takes the belt off? We are researching whether we should move the SCBAs out of the cab. I think we should keep them in the cab and make sure that those in charge of the vehicle take charge. It is called ownership, responsibility, and being a good human being. Also, it is the law.
Derek Williams, captain,
Mesa (AZ) Fire Department
Response: We have had a seat belt policy for quite some time. We have rather good compliance and have had several engine company accidents that went without injury because of seat belt use. Not only is it policy-let us not forget-it is the law in Arizona (as well as in many other states).
Ultimately, our company officers are responsible for ensuring that seat belts are used at all times. But I like to emphasize to our members that it is everyone’s responsibility. If someone in the cab of a fire apparatus is not restrained, not only is that member endangering himself, but he is also endangering the other crew members. Would you consider riding in a truck with a 50-pound bag of cement bouncing around? A firefighter who is not seat-belted could do considerably more damage to you in an accident. Yet, it is awkward for some to directly address fellow firefighters’ lack of responsibility when they choose to ride unrestrained.
How do we get firefighters to wear seat belts? Military leaders say that one way to achieve victory over an enemy is to “win over their hearts and minds.” The enemy here is firefighter line-of-duty death. The hearts and minds we have to win over are our own! Until every fire department’s culture and attitude have changed on this issue, we will continue to see firefighters die senselessly while riding in emergency vehicles.
Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
Response: We have a policy. It is the responsibility of each department member (individual accountability) to ensure that they are wearing their seat belts when the vehicle is in motion. However, the responsibility for making sure that all members riding the apparatus are wearing their seat belts falls directly on the company officer or senior member. As is the case when it comes down to responsibility and following orders and directives, the officer in charge has to exercise that authority to protect the members.
As for how we can get firefighters to wear seat belts, as with any safety initiative, hold them and their officers accountable. It never ceases to amaze me that we as a fire service can respond to a motor vehicle accident, get there, see that a couple of kids have been ejected and maybe the mother or father as well, get upset with the fact that “this wouldn’t have happened if they had just been wearing their seat belts,” and then get back on the rig, return to quarters or to another call, and not put on our own seat belts. It’s like a person complaining about a drunk driver and then going out for the night and driving his car while intoxicated.
I can understand that it can be cumbersome and at times difficult to wear a seat belt while riding an engine or a ladder truck to a call, but a little discomfort and a couple of seconds to buckle and unbuckle (that’s all it really takes) seem to be an easy way to ensure that “everyone goes home.” It is critical for the officer to be the crew’s leader first and buddy second.
Rick Mosher, lieutenant,
Merriam (KS) Fire Department
Response: We have a written seat belt policy. It is contained in the Alarm Response section of our General Orders and places responsibility on the fire apparatus operator (FAO). The FAO must ensure all firefighters are seated and belted before moving the engine or truck. We also place responsibility on the company officer in the Daily Operation section of our General Orders to ensure a safe environment for each member at all times during the shift. We take a zero-tolerance stance when it comes to not wearing a seat belt while riding in the engine or truck. Our firefighters know that not wearing a seat belt will result in corrective action. Our city and department have stated that being involved in an accident without wearing your seat belt could result in reduction or noncoverage of benefits. Kansas State law requires the use of seat belts in all motor vehicles.
Our solution is to instill in each member the understanding of why wearing seat belts is positive. This has been accomplished through the Safety Stand Down, the study of NIOSH LODD reports, practical training on how to bottle up while belted in, and the members holding each other accountable for safety. There have also been numerous fire apparatus accidents including some LODD in our regional area over the past several years. This has made a lasting impression on our members. It is pretty simple: Slow down and buckle up.