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Unbelievable! Or is it?

November 5th, 2007

By Robert Tutterow
Health & Safety Officer
Charlotte Fire Department

Through May of this year, unofficially, this country has lost 43 firefighters in the line of duty. 16 of these firefighters lost their lives responding to calls while 8 lost their lives at the scene of an incident (excluding medical LODD’s). Heart attacks and strokes aside, more than twice as many firefighters have lost their live responding to incidents than actually working at the incidents! That’s UNBELIEVABLE–OR IS IT? It’s certainly absurd and totally unacceptable. To the general public, that statistic would probably be very surprising because they think we get killed bringing people out of burning structures. At least that’s what we tell them.

How could this be believable? It’s believable because, it’s a trend that has emerged in recent years. If you are a student of the fire service, it’s almost predictable. While our number of fires has not seen a significant increase, our number of responses has seen a steady rise. We have improved PPE and most of us now use an incident management system with regard to risk versus gain. However, we have not changed a simple “no-cost, no training required’ change, i.e. slow down and buckle up. This stems from the way we are “vaccinated” into the service, i.e. our culture. And, our culture knows no bounds. The fatalities have occurred in some of the largest metro departments, in small city departments, in suburban departments, and in small rural volunteer departments. In many of the 15 fatalities, the deceased were ejected from the cab. Rarely do firefighters get killed responding to an incident if they are belted.

“All persons riding in fire apparatus shall be seated and belted securely by seat belts in approved riding positions at any time the vehicle is in motion.” (NFPA 1500, 2007 Edition, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, Section 6.3.1.)

What are the excuses? We don’t have time. We can’t get our SCBA on if we’re belted. It won’t happen to me. We can’t reach the belts. The belts are too short. We won’t wreck—we’re the fire department—people get out of our way. It’s just a short trip. Hey, it’s a dangerous job anyway.

A few notable departments (Phoenix, LA City, Plano, and others) have eliminated a few of these excuses by taking the SCBA out of the cabs. And believe it or not, it has not had a negative impact on their service delivery. There is no evidence to suggest that the babies, kittens, and puppies in those jurisdictions are at more risk than anywhere else.

Let’s take a look at the “brotherhood” of firefighters. It is a most noble and honorable profession (volunteer or career) that will help each other in a time of need more than any other profession. The camaraderie we have is the envy of many CEO’s and a marvel to the general public. The “brotherhood” also really knows how to do funerals. Maybe it’s because we are so experienced. The pageantry of a firefighter funeral draws the news media and the family support is immeasurable.
But yet, this same “brotherhood” will not assign value in looking after a fellow “brother” to make sure he or she is belted. Furthermore, the “brotherhood” gets exercised if a LODD’s is caused by a possible equipment malfunction. We demand full investigations, product recalls, and file lawsuits without hesitation. Yet, the “brotherhood” accepts an LODD without a whimper when a “brother” is killed because he/she did not buckle up. What’s wrong with this picture?

Now if you always buckle up, thank you! Should you make the ultimate sacrifice in this profession, it will probably be in a heroic way. Of those 15 that lost their lives this year who did not buckle up, they chose a non-heroic way to leave their family and friends behind. Also, if you always buckle up and there are others in your vehicle (either apparatus or POV), make sure they are buckled. If they are not buckled, they can become your worst enemy in a collision.

If we are going to put an end to this madness, how do we do it? The major fire service organizations don’t have the power to make a change. If we are to “fix” the problem internally, it must happen at the local level with each firefighter, each company officer, and each chief officer taking ownership of the problem. What does it take for this to happen? I don’t know. If you ask a fire chief about seat belt usage in his department, typically the chief will stand straight, stick out his chest and proudly proclaim that his department has a seat belt policy. But is it enforced? Don’t ask the chief, ask the firefighters. The chief has filtered information and too much pride to admit a shortcoming.
Think about this—why do we even need a seat belt policy? Isn’t that like having a policy that states you must wipe your butt after taking a crap? Buckling up should be something we inherently do without a written policy. As wise investment counselors say, past experience is a predictor of future performance. If that is the case with seat belt usage, we will not fix the problem internally. If it gets fixed, the smart money might be on the judicial system stepping in. Folks, there aren’t many starving or laid-off lawyers out there. We don’t need to give them more work.
The NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Apparatus is considering a few proposals that will help us police ourselves with belt usage. Foremost is a seat belt usage indicator system that monitors seat belt usage in each seat of the apparatus. The system provides both audible and visual warnings if a seat is occupied and the belt not secured around the firefighter. Buckling the belt and then sitting on top of it, will not override the system. In addition, the committee is considering a “black box” for apparatus that will monitor and store data related to apparatus operation. Included in the data is seat belt usage of each seat. The committee is also considering proposals that make seat belts easier to access and use. It will be this fall before the committee makes a final decision on the proposals.
If you are one of the many who does not wear a seat belt when riding in an apparatus, do this—ask yourself why. Take a few minutes and formulate your answer. Now, go tell your spouse, your children, your parents, your significant other, and your friends so they will know. They should know about this ahead of time because it is much harder on them when they learn of this after you have gone to your reward.

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has a slogan that bears repeating: “The Courage to be Safe, So Everyone Goes Home”. Do YOU have that kind of courage?

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