Lead by Example in Vehicle Safety
|How not to drive a fire truck|
Last week my fire department was dispatched to assist to a neighboring department with a house fire. I happened to be at the firehouse so I quickly proceeded to don my gear and grab a jump seat — for once I didn't have to drive! The rear of the ladder truck soon filled with four other members and we turned out down the street.
One of the members sitting across from me was a newly promoted lieutenant. As with many volunteer departments, a line officer is often found riding in the back seat when another line officer has already grabbed the front — we can argue that practice at a later time. I noticed that this new lieutenant was not wearing his seat belt. I immediately said "Dude, where's your seat belt?" Motioning at the retracted seat belt as he glared at me, he replied, "Right here."
My response? "How 'bout you put your seat belt on so that if we crash this thing you don't come across the seat and kill me?" Somehow I went from scoring a coveted jump seat en route to a working fire to the middle of a stand-off. Grudgingly, he put his seat belt on and we continued on our way.
As we pulled up to the scene, this newly minted lieutenant snidely plucked at his seat belt strap and said, "Is it all right to take this off now?" At that point, I felt I'd had enough. Having spent several years as a line and chief officer, this lieutenant for me was setting an extremely poor example for the younger and more impressionable members riding in the rig. I then proceeded to explain my feelings to this lieutenant — perhaps a bit harshly — until another senior member put the discussion to rest by simply stating, "At this station, we wear our seat belts." End of story.
So why do I share this story? I do so because this 3-minute episode epitomizes the problems that we face in today’s fire service on many different levels. The title of this year's Safety, Health and Survival Week is "Committed to Long-Term Results." But how can we commit to long-term results if those in positions of leadership and power won't follow the rules themselves? How is it possible that a line officer can not only get away with not wearing a seat belt, but can then argue the issue with someone who tells him to put it on? Have we learned nothing from those who have given their lives before us?
Imagine this scenario: A fire apparatus rolls out the door with two young firefighters and a line officer. One of the young firefighters sees that his officer isn't wearing his seat belt and figures he doesn't need to wear it either. The truck crashes and the young firefighter is ejected and killed. Who is at fault? The reports and the scuttlebutt will all say that if this young firefighter had just put his seat belt on, he would still be here today. People will question his poor judgment and shake their heads at what they believe was a rookie mistake. But was it?
In reality, that same line officer who set a silent example by not wearing his seat belt is largely responsible for this hypothetical fatality. Like it or not, when you pin a fancy gold horn on your collar or put that shiny white front piece on your helmet, you’ve become someone that younger members look up to and follow. Even when you don’t realize it, these members are emulating you and following your example. Senior firefighters, line officers and chiefs all create a culture that younger and more junior firefighters will learn to live by. It is this culture that can save or cost a life.
If the fire service truly wishes to bring about long-term results, it's time to start holding people responsible for their actions. It seems that every time one of us is injured or killed, the rest of us are hesitant to ask questions or pass judgment. As a result, this culture never changes. How do I know? Look at the number of firefighter fatalities over the past 20 years. Does anyone really see a difference?
So how should we hold people accountable? It's time to start wielding a big stick. Fancy posters and cute little stickers telling you to wear your seat belt haven’t worked. Every year there are still numerous line-of-duty deaths that are a direct result of someone not wearing their seat belt. Want to make a difference? Start randomly stopping your rigs and checking to see that everyone has their seat belt on. If someone doesn't, suspend them. More than three infractions, show them the door. Maybe it's time to have the cops start citing people who can't get the message through their heads. After all, not wearing your seat belt is against the law!
Until these types of attitudes change or people are held responsible for their actions, I don’t believe we will ever reduce the number of line–of-duty deaths, especially those that are a direct result of vehicle crashes. Unless those in charge begin to lead by example and create a culture in which reckless driving, poor attitudes and lack of seat belt use are no longer tolerated, the culture will never change and we will be doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over again.
To those who have already begun to move this ship in a positive direction, my hat is off to you. And to those that refuse to help the rest of us reduce the number of firefighter fatalities by continuing this reckless culture ... I say maybe it's time to go.