As firefighters, we frequently share messages about safety with the public we serve. Fire safety is obviously a favorite topic, and since we in the fire service frequently respond to auto accidents, we’re frequently warning others about the dangers of distracted driving as well as driving under the influence of alcohol and other intoxicants. Besides staying focused and sober, though, the most important thing anyone can do to stay safe on the road is wear a seat belt.
Today is National Seat Belt Day. Virtually everyone knows we should buckle up while driving or riding in passenger vehicles, and current statistics suggest that about nine out of 10 Americans do so. With the notable exception of New Hampshire, every state (plus the District of Columbia) mandates seat belt use by law. And of course, it’s very easy to justify seat belt use by citing some important statistics:
- Roughly 15,000 lives are saved every year by seat belt use, and about 2,500 additional lives could be saved if everyone buckled up.
- Of the nearly 24,000 people who died in car crashes in 2020, more than half (51%) were not wearing seat belts.
- Wearing a seat belt reduces your risk of dying in a crash by 45%. It also cuts your chances of being injured in a cash by 50%.
Seat Belts and Firefighters
The consequences of not wearing, or improperly wearing, a seat belt is clear. But how does seat belt use impact those of us in the fire service? Incredibly, in spite of everything we know, firefighters are being injured and killed because not everyone is buckling up.
On average, 100 firefighters die each year. Of that figure, many are firefighters being ejected from either a fire apparatus or their personal vehicles while responding to an emergency. In addition, fire department vehicle accidents are responsible for nearly a quarter of firefighter injuries each year.
Also, according to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation:
- Apparatus rollovers are the most common cause of firefighter fatal crashes.
- 66% of all fatal apparatus crashes involve an unrestrained firefighter.
- Wearing seat belts reduces death/injury potential by 50%.
- 10-20% of firefighter line-of-duty deaths are the result of vehicle crashes.
As first responders who treat accident victims and extricate people trapped in wrecked cars, firefighters know better than most the value of seatbelts. So why do some still refuse to buckle up? Unfortunately, the “seat belt paradox” is a very real phenomenon.
Injuries and deaths stemming from failing to use seat belts are the most avoidable of all causes. Because of this, the International Association of Fire Chiefs adopted a model policy position back in 2008:
All personnel must be seated and belted whenever the vehicle (either department or personal) is in motion for department business.
The driver and/or officer shall assure by voice and personnel reply that seatbelts are properly fastened. The driver will only proceed when it can be confirmed that all members are seated and belted.
The only exception to the use of seatbelts while a vehicle is in motion is a situation where a person is providing direct patient care (EMS) and there is no reasonable restraint system available.
Utilize a progressive discipline system holding the violator and the supervisor responsible to ensure compliance with the seatbelt policy, reflecting the serious and potential life threatening consequences of failure to comply.
In addition, IAFC policy 8.A.451 specifies that “[a]ll individuals are required to wear seat belts and/or shoulder harnesses at all times when driving or riding in fire department vehicles. Drivers are responsible for the proper seating and fastening of the passengers prior to moving the vehicle.” These positions are also supported by the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and are incorporated in Lexipol’s Seat Belt Policy, part of the comprehensive Fire Policy and Training service.
With all this in mind, why do we still need to remind ourselves and each other of the importance of seat belts? One reason is that many firefighters develop a false sense of security about the fire apparatus. Riding in a 20- to 30-ton fire truck — with sirens wailing, airhorns blowing and lights flashing — makes us feel secure (or even entitled), whether we’re driving code 3 or just conducting day-to-day operations.
The other excuse we often hear regarding firefighters and seat belts is “they’re too cumbersome with all our PPE we have to wear.” This is another excuse that can and will prove deadly! All too often, personnel modify or adjust the way they wear their seat belts. However, improperly wearing a seat belt, such as sliding the strap below your arm, or repositioning it behind you, puts you at risk in a crash.
Taking the Pledge
Back in 2006, following the tragic death of Texas firefighter Brian Hutton, Dr. Burton Clark created the National Fire Service Seatbelt Pledge. Since then, hundreds of departments and individuals have committed to 100% compliance with seat belt best practices. As we commemorate National Seat Belt Day, let’s all redouble our efforts to wear our seat belts at all times, both on and off the job!
Buckling up is the single most effective thing you can do to protect yourself in the event of a vehicle accident. Being belted in during a crash helps keep you safe and secure inside your apparatus. Remember: Being ejected from a vehicle is almost always deadly. Always wear your seat belt!