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Life-saving secret: Seatbelts

Total compliance wearing a seatbelt whenever an apparatus is moving can save as many as 10 firefighter lives per year.

The need for properly wearing seatbelts whenever a vehicle is in motion remains a central topic of discussion for fire-safety advocates. But until we can figure out the secret to increase seatbelt-use compliance to 100 percent, this mundane and well-worn topic will continue to be a focal point.

Seatbelt-use statistics are depressing, about six to 10 U.S. firefighters are killed in the line of duty each year simply because they did not take the time to click their seatbelt buckle. Not wearing this required safety device causes a significant number of firefighter injuries each year as well. 

A tip of the helmet goes to Dr. Burton Clark of the National Fire Academy for developing and implementing the Fire Service Seatbelt Pledge program and keeping this topic visible. Clearly, Dr. Clark and all of those that sign the seatbelt pledge are at the "tip of the spear" on this safety issue. 

However, peer pressure to not wear a seatbelt is real and obviously enormous. One can feel the skeptic's glare when that shinny buckle goes click. It is amazing to think that a person who would never operate a personal vehicle without a belt, disregards the same need when riding on fire apparatus.

Impromptu ride along
A few years ago, I delivered an incident safety officer course to a class of about 40. All were bright faces and engaged in rich discussion about how to apply the ABCs of the on-scene safety officer: unsafe acts, behaviors and conditions.

The class was on track with identifying and correcting the issues in the dozen or so case studies being presented. It seemed like this material was not difficult enough for this group and then an actual alarm was received. 

One of the chief officers asked if I would like to ride along with the company to the apartment fire. I hopped into the crew cab and tried to stay out of everyone's way, as we made ready to hit the street to help "Mrs. Smith" with the smoke that was filling up her apartment. 

Seatbelt hunt
It was a typically company turnout in the eight-person cab, until I went looking for my seatbelt. First, the search was a bit of a challenge. The seatbelt had been buckled behind the SCBA. 

As I worked my way down to the seatbelt buckle, I found a few discarded items, like a crushproof cigarette box and some old papers. Once located, I quickly unbuckled and stretched the device around my body and clicked the belt.

One by one, the company members located their seatbelts and strapped in with the hardly used devices. Of the eight riding in the crew cab, all but one was seated and belted.

Oddly enough, the one member that was wearing SCBA did not use his seatbelt. Also, this was the only member that went into the smoky apartment upon arrival. What happened to working in pairs?

The fire turned out to be food burning on the stove. The charred pot was removed and several smoke ejectors made quick work of clearing the thick smoke. 

Post mortem
After about 45 minutes, the group reassembled in the fire station training room ready to continue the course. This was a perfect opportunity for a mini post-incident critique. 

We discussed the company turn out process, incident personnel accountability and of course the lack of wearing seatbelts. We addressed the mandate to work in pairs and the need to follow the "two in and two out" rescue the rescuer requirement.

The four or five needed fireground safety improvements that were collectively discussed seemed to be well received by all. In fact, one of the chief officers pointed out just about all of the questionable practices and was quick to describe the needed improvements.  

After about 90 minutes of a spirited group discussion about risk management, another alarm sounded. With a run volume of about 250 calls per years, the second call for help in the same day was a little out of the ordinary. 

Lessons in safety
This time the call was a hazardous materials alarm for an overflowing fuel oil tank in the basement of a balloon frame single-family dwelling. All hands moved professionally towards the rigs to mount-up for this response. 

The heavy rescue squad was the first unit due to respond and a few of the members insisted that I ride in the right front seat. I declined at least two or three times, but the firefighters insisted that I ride up front.

Very reluctantly, I climbed into the cab and buckled up. After a few seconds of responding, it became clear why I was escorted to the officer's seat. I am sure that no one in the back of the rescue squad was seated or belted. 

Why is there so much resistance to wear such a simply, but critical item of safety gear? Whatever the reason, the resistance is real and we must find a way to overcome this well-identified, solvable problem.

Bruno's belt fix
Retired Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini tells a story about being a presenter at a quarterly Phoenix Fire Department company officers meeting. During his comments to dozens of fire captain and battalion fire chiefs, Chief Bruno reiterated that seatbelts are not optional and must be worn 100 percent of the time when the vehicle is in motion. 

After the impassioned seatbelt speech, one of the younger captains raised his hand to question this policy. "Chief Brunacini," he started, "if you want us to be seated and belted all of the time, why in the world did you put SCBA units in the cab of the fire apparatus?"

Chief Brunacini excused himself from the meeting. The newly promoted captain was likely confident that he just made a significant point about the uselessness of the seatbelts in fire apparatus. The old fire chief would just have to accept that speed of putting on an air pack comes at the expense of not wearing the obstructive seatbelt — topic closed.

When Chief Brunacini stepped into the hallway, he called the fire apparatus maintenance shop and instructed them to remove all SCBA from riding positions and place them in the side compartments. 

Chief Brunacini was aware that the captain who just pointed out the equipment location flaw was assigned to Engine 37. The order was to start the removal and relocation process with Engine 37 that day.

When the chief returned to the training room, he thanked the captain for pointing out the barrier to wearing seatbelts while riding on apparatus. Chief Brunacini detailed the corrective measures that were being immediately implemented and remind everyone that seatbelt use is mandatory in the Phoenix Fire Department. 

The SCBA units have remained in the side compartments since that day. 

Let's follow the examples of Chief Bruno and Dr. Clark and work towards 100 percent compliance. Six to 10 U.S. firefighter families every year will be very happy that we demanded complete compliance — although they may never know why.

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