Photo Kevin Czarzasty One firefighter died and one was injured in a collision between two fire trucks in Waterbury, Conn., this month. Neither was wearing seat belts.
I am the father of two wonderful children, a girl and boy aged 9 and 7. I learn a lot from them, particularly how much I don't know.
They teach me a great deal about communicating, especially the listening side and conflict resolution. I'm currently amazed at my 7-year-old son's understanding of the clear lines between right and wrong — that's not to say he doesn't find himself often on the wrong side of the line, but to him rules are rules. He knows when he's broken them and feels fairly comfortable pointing out when others have transgressed the "official rule book of 7 year olds."
I often wish that we in the fire service had the same clear understanding of the rules as well as the confidence to call others on their transgressions before actions got out of hand and people got hurt.
The other day, responding to a fire alarm, as I gave the driver the go ahead to drive out of the station, in unison he and I called out, "Everyone buckled up?" Although the response in the back was all variations on the word yes, the level of enthusiasm certainly varied from person to person — clearly some were not too happy that we'd remembered to ask.
Custom cabs Our department has only one engine left with open rear facing jump seats, and that will be leaving us shortly. The other engines and trucks are all custom cabs, which means the communications — verbal and visual — are much easier from the front to the back of the cab.
It's made clear in our department that the trucks don't leave until everyone is buckled up. We've also made it clear to our drivers that across the nation, courts have held drivers accountable for the deaths of firefighters. Finally we've made it clear to our firefighters that wearing seat belts to the station, on the apparatus and on the way home will all help ensure their safety, yet they and firefighters across this country still seem to be having a tough time buckling up.
I work for the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, and each year we have a conference of public fire and injury prevention educators. This year, I was particularly interested in the closing speaker, Dr. Robert Cole, PhD., from fire education consultants Fireproof Children Inc. The presentation in general was good, but one thing in particular struck me. Dr. Cole discussed the real value of seat belt laws in a way that I and I believe others had not considered — he discussed the social freedom that these laws give us to be safe!
Most of us do think in terms of staying safe and enforcing that message.At the same time, most of us don't like to push our safety message on those who don't seem interested.
Vehicle stickers I see many firefighters, career and volunteer, who have stickers on their vehicles proudly displaying their avocation, but seldom do I see the bumper sticker pushing a message of fire prevention. If we go to a party, we may talk with enthusiasm about a recent interesting call to those not even involved in the fire service. But would we consider discussing, with the same level of comfort, about practicing EDITH drills? For many of us, that sort of conversation is either too intrusive or we don't want to seem "weird."
What the seat belt law in New York for personal vehicles did was give us a façade to hide our safety behind. Before the law, if someone got in your personal car you likely wouldn't tell them they had to buckle up, even though that action protected you as well as them. And if you got into someone else's car, you likely would look at them before you buckled up — I mean, you wouldn't want to look like some sort of safety nut!
But since the law was introduced, we can now turn to passengers and tell them they have to buckle up, and we can blame it on the government without looking like the bad guy. We can also put on our seat belt without any concern because as the driver or passenger you can state that you simply don't want a ticket.
We must provide the same social support for our officers, drivers, unofficial leaders and firefighters to give them the social shield they need to feel comfortable in ensuring that we are each buckled up. Simply creating a standard operating procedure to ensure that you're legally covered is not enough — we must ensure that these SOPs are enforced and we must support our leaders when they enforce the measure. We must also give each member the wherewithal to feel safe in wearing their seat belt and helping others to remember to wear theirs.
One step in the process of creating that social shield is to have all of our members take the National Seat Belt Pledge. Taking this action will begin the process of giving each of us the ability, regardless of rank, to remind our fellow firefighters of their promise to themselves, their family, brother and sister firefighters — and to fellow firefighter Christopher Brian Hunton, whose death inspired the pledge initiative.
Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.
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