The seatbelt paradox: Unbelted firefighters are still dying every year

Firefighters know better than most the value of seatbelts, so why do some still fail to buckle up?


Four years ago, I published a column saying that I hoped that 2017 would be the first year that no firefighter died as a result of injuries from not being seat-belted when operating or riding in a moving vehicle.

Unfortunately, that goal was not met in 2017. Or in 2018. Or 2019. Or 2020.

Firefighters continue to die as a result of failing to use seat belts, the most avoidable of all line-of-duty-death (LODD) causes. Why is this still happening?

Firefighters continue to die as a result of failing to use seat belts, the most avoidable of all line-of-duty-death (LODD) causes. Why is this still happening?
Firefighters continue to die as a result of failing to use seat belts, the most avoidable of all line-of-duty-death (LODD) causes. Why is this still happening? (Photo/West Routt Fire Protection District)

There has been a significant cultural shift over the past 50 years when it comes to seat belts. I am old enough to remember when they were merely a suggestion, and some vehicles were not even equipped with them. In the days of open cabs and firefighters riding the tailboard, seat belts often conflicted with practical operations.

But those days are long gone. Now most personal vehicles are relentless in reminding occupants to use seat belts. State laws require their use. Parents wouldn’t dream of letting their kids ride unrestrained. And the evidence that seat belts save lives is overwhelming and unequivocal.

Nobody knows this better than firefighters and other first responders who respond to sometimes horrific motor vehicle crashes. Yet there are still some who drive to the fire station while safely belted in their own private vehicles, and then jump on the rig without giving the use of seat belts a second thought.           

Increasing the use of seat belts by firefighters was first promoted on a national scale in 2005 by Dr. Burton Clark, a program director at the National Fire Academy and a longtime volunteer with his hometown fire department in Maryland. That year, he wrote an article about the death of Amarillo, Texas, Firefighter Brian Hunton, who was killed when he fell from a rig during an emergency response. Clark provocatively began that article by stating, “If you are the fire chief and you know that you do not have a 100% compliance 100% of the time with your seat belt policy, you killed Firefighter Brian Hunton.” At that point, he made a personal commitment to improving firefighter safety culture by promoting seat belt use.

Clark subsequently created the National Seatbelt Pledge, which gives firefighters the opportunity to make a personal commitment to seat belt use and recognizes departments that promote this behavior. He managed the pledge in the early years but responsibility for it was transferred to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) in 2010 and directed through their Everyone Goes Home initiative. After some flagging interest in the pledge in recent years, it was relaunched in January 2019 after undergoing upgrades based on user input.

John Tippett, director of Fire Programs for NFFF, pointed out that while the seat belt pledge may not have the same effect for everyone, it still creates an overall benefit: “If you’re a person that believes in your word and your commitment, then signing the seat belt pledge is a reinforcement of that. If you’re a person who’s just doing it to get the chief off your back, it’s probably not going to change your mind. But it could be an element that creates an accountability factor. You are going to be held to your word.”

One problem with ensuring universal seat belt use is the lack of complete data about the issue. LODD reports involving moving vehicles do not always indicate whether seat belts were worn at the time of the incident. Research has shown that firefighters might be inconsistent in their use of seat belts, making their use conditional rather than absolute.

There is little data about other factors that might influence seat belt use, such as rank, seniority or generational differences. Many organizations have unclear accountability for ensuring seat belts are used whenever the rig is moving. Is the driver responsible? The company officer? Is it time to look at more technical solutions, such as upgrading seat belt alarms or even creating technology where fire or emergency apparatus cannot move until all occupied seats have seat belts engaged?

But technical solutions can only go so far. Every firefighter knows that seat belts save lives; they see this reality on a daily basis. Their reluctance to be in 100% compliance with seat belt use may be a result of good intentions. “Wasting time putting on your gear when arriving at a structure fire may cost someone their life!” was one comment from research.

Or lack of seat belt use may be a matter of bad example – if no one else on the rig is wearing a seat belt, why should you?

Failure to use seat belts might also result from complacency. If you don’t know anyone who has been injured or killed due to lack of seat belt use, it is much easier to believe it can’t happen to you.

Technical solutions and enforcement are important, and even making small changes, like improving the design of seats, can improve compliance. However, changing attitudes to change behavior must go deeper. It is critical to take a strong leadership stand that seat belts will be used 100% of the time. Those in positions of authority or influence must first lead by their example and allow no exceptions.

Testimonials from those whose lives have been saved by seat belts might also personalize the problem. For example, on Dec. 19, 2020, a fire engine returning from a structure fire in Routt County, Colorado, slid off an icy road and rolled over 200 feet down an embankment. The vehicle was severely damaged, but because seat belts were in use, all four firefighters onboard walked away with only minor injuries.

At the 2007 Fire-Rescue International conference, the NFFF awarded Burt Clark the Seal of Excellence for his leadership in promoting firefighter safety through seat belt compliance. He refused to accept the honor, saying that the award should not be given until the U.S. fire service goes one year without a firefighter fatality that could have been prevented through seat belt use.

That award has yet to be given. But maybe 2021 will be the year.

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