Seat belts: A family affair – blood relatives and brotherhood alike

Dr. Burton Clark shares three seat belt stories of impact, from his immediate family to new recruits to fire service leaders


By Dr. Burton Clark

We easily talk about the fire service as a family. We use words like love, caring, brotherhood/sisterhood. We would protect each other with our life. These are heartfelt sentiments, but how do they translate into behavior?

As with all cultural issues, it is only my behavior and your behavior that matters as individuals, groups or organizations. And behavior related to seat belt usage is a matter of life and death. The following three seat belt examples related to family – my biological family and my fire service family.

NIOSH Report 2017-06 focuses on an incident in which a volunteer firefighter was killed in a tanker rollover. The firefighter was not wearing a seat belt and ejected from the apparatus. (Photo/NIOSH)
NIOSH Report 2017-06 focuses on an incident in which a volunteer firefighter was killed in a tanker rollover. The firefighter was not wearing a seat belt and ejected from the apparatus. (Photo/NIOSH)

1. Seat belt showdown: Time to stand up or shut up

Our daughter Samantha does not wear her seat belt. Sam is an adult, a mother of three, and a grandmother of three. She is a combat veteran from the first Gulf War, an electrician, and an over-the-road truck driver. She is an intelligent, strong, beautiful woman.

Nothing I could say would convince her to wear her seat belt. She saw seat belt rules as a government infringement on her right to choose. We agreed to disagree. So, I did not let her ride in my car, and I did not ride in her car.

Sam was visiting us over the Fourth of July holiday last year. She invited me to go to breakfast with her and friends, and I agreed. Without thinking, I got into her car and we drove off. I suddenly realized that she was not wearing her seat belt. What to do? I said nothing for all the wrong reasons – fear of pissing her off, starting an argument, causing her to lose driving concentration. The truth – no courage.

It was a short 10-minute ride to pick up her friend. I said nothing, but my mind was racing. When we stopped, she turned off the car and was about to get out to go knock on the friend’s door. I put my hand over hers on the consoled gear shift and said, “Sam, I love ….” She cut me off, yelling, “I don’t want to hear anything about my $&$# *^@ seat belt; I’m not wearing the &^%$#@*# seat belt.” And she got out of the car.

It was time for me to stand up or shut up.

When she got back in the car, I said, “Sam, I love you, but I cannot ride in the car with you. I will get a ride home.” I got out of the car and walked away. It was the only thing I could think to do, and I had no idea of the consequences. My heart was racing and adrenaline was flowing. It was a long walk. My conscious and subconscious were in fight-or-flight mode.

Less than 3 minutes later, Sam and her friend pulled up next to me, Sam rolled down her window and said, “I’ll wear my seat belt, get in the car.” I did. Sam has worn her seat belt ever since that day. I thanked her and give her credit. See the light, be the light.

2. Newsworthy seat belt stories worth sharing

On July 13, 2018, I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the Winston Salem Fire Department Recruit Cass 26 Graduation in North Carolina. I included the following two seat belt news items in my talk.

The week before the ceremony, a North Carolina firefighter was killed in a crash responding to a call in his personal vehicle; he was not wearing his seat belt and was ejected. And the week of the graduation, a Florida firefighter was injured when he fell out of his engine while responding to a call.

I don’t know if any of the graduates will remember anything I said. I don’t remember my 1972 District of Columbia Fire Department graduation speaker or what they said. But the 15 graduates of class number 26 from the Winston Salem Fire Department will have 30 years of behavior to shape their individual, group and organizational seat belt culture, and like many behaviors in the fire service, it will be a matter of life and death.

3. NIOSH reports make the case

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Report 2017-06 was release in September 2018. The title is “Volunteer Fire Fighter Dies in Tanker Rollover Responding to Structure Fire – Oklahoma” I had the privilege to be an expert technical reviewer on the report.

USFA Report Cover by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

The facts of the incident are well known: single person driving tanker to alarm, driver loses control, vehicle rolls over, occupant ejected, seat belt not used, firefighter dies from injuries. The recommendations are also well known – except for recommendation No. 5: “Fire departments should ensure the fire service culture does not contribute to fire fighter occupational injuries and fatalities when making decisions to ensure that both the fire service culture and departmental safety climate can be moved forward together in a common-sense, safety-oriented approach."

This is the first time a NIOSH report has include a recommendation related to fire service culture. The foundation for this recommendation comes from a 2015 U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) report titled “National Safety Culture Change Initiative: Study of Behavioral Motivation on Reduction of Risk-Taking Behaviors in the Fire and Emergency Service.”

The group that developed this culture-focused report was comprised of representatives from the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association (CVVFA), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), the NFPA, NIOSH, the NVFC, the North American Fire Training Directors (NAFTD), the USFA, the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. This is the last group project I participated in before retiring from the National Fire Academy (NFA) in 2014.

I was very satisfied with the report and grateful to have had the opportunity to work on it. But, before the report was finished and released, I had a personal conflict with the experience, so much so that I wrote an essay about it titled “The Great Seat Belt Lie,” which appeared in my book, “I Can’t Save You, But I’ll Die Trying: The American Fire Culture.”

Basically, the group was given three firsthand examples of a fire department not using seat belts. I challenged the groups to have their organizations’ leadership write a letter to the fire department informing them that department policy and national fire service standard on seat belts were not being enforced. No one from the group volunteered to write the letter, so I wrote a personal letter. I received no reply from the fire chief or labor organizations to whom I sent the letters. Last year, the department had a fatal crash between an engine and a private vehicle, resulting in the citizen’s death. Some of the firefighters on the apparatus were not wearing their seat belt and were injured.

The NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program provided the following statement for this article: “NIOSH recognizes that a fire department’s culture is an important aspect of a firefighter’s overall safety and health. It is important to recognize and identify both individual and organizational behaviors that adversely impact firefighter health and safety so that the organization can develop strategies to mitigate them. Failing to wear a seat belt while responding to an emergency is a prime example.”

Find the courage to stand up for seat belts

I wrote my first seat belt article in 2003. It was titled “To Be or Not To Be a Tattle Tale.” In the article, I wrote: “From now on, if I am on your fire truck and the seat belts are not used, I am going to ask you why. Then I am going to tell the chief that the seat belt policy is being ignored. Then I am going to publish the name of the fire department, the chief, and the company officer. I got that idea for Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.”

We have not solved the seat belt issue yet, and I don’t have the seat belt courage I boosted about in 2003 yet. NIOSH has recommended that, “Fire departments should ensure the fire service culture does not contribute to fire fighter occupational injuries and fatalities,” so that should help us all have more courage when it comes to seat belts.

I know it is hard to get adult family members to use their seat belts, but you do not have to ride in their car or let them ride in your car. We set this standard because we love them, and we will not let their unbelted body be the projectile that injures or kills another loved one in the car. This is called tough love. So, from now on, the officer/adult on the fire truck can use tough love to get their fire family to buckle up. And if your crew yells “I’m not wearing my $%#@^&* seat belt!” tell your crew you love them – then get out of the fire truck and walk to the call.

About the author

Dr. Burton A. Clark, EFO, has been in the fire service for 49 years. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Fire Service Psychology Association and the Board of Governors for the John M. Moschella Fire Service Research Grant Trust. Dr. Clark is a technical expert reviewer for the NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention program and a dissertation advisor at various universities. He is the author of “I Can’t Save You, But I’ll Die Trying: The American Fire Culture.”

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