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Seatbelts: A Fire Chief`s Nightmare

Many fire chiefs have struggled for decades with the age-old question: "How do I get my firefighters to follow the department's mandatory seatbelt use policy?"

Part of the reason for this struggle rests with the fire chiefs themselves. I have heard on many occasions from fire chiefs, "I've done everything humanly possible and I still can't get my firefighters to wear seatbelts."

Then I walk out to the apparatus bay and see a fleet of fire apparatus with raised roof cabs. I've heard all of the excuses for purchasing such apparatus, but the reality is that if you buy apparatus with raised roof cabs, you've subliminally given permission for your firefighters to stand to get dressed in bunker gear en route to the call—regardless of what your policy says.

Many chiefs might agree that their firefighters are only as good as their training. With that in mind, how many hours are dedicated in your rookie or new-recruit school to training your firefighters on how to properly get dressed and ride on your apparatus? Probably most chiefs would admit to none. We in the fire service tend to take a lot for granted.

How about the newly promoted officer who puts his or her foot on the Q2 siren, never to lift the foot off?

If you follow the recommendations on the proper use of that particular siren, you know you need to vary the sirens pitch to hit as many different decibel levels as possible to maximize the sirens effectiveness. We take for granted that a newly promoted officer will use the siren correctly; it's just a siren.

So as a fire chief, you shouldn't be shocked when your firefighters don't buckle up, don't get dressed before boarding the apparatus and don't ride on the apparatus properly. They've become a product of their environment and their training—or the lack thereof.

We take for granted that firefighters already know how to ride on a fire truck and use the seatbelts with bunker gear, even though the new recruit may have never been on a fire truck before.

But if you teach someone how to do something right, chances are pretty good that it's the way it will be done. Especially firefighters—we don't like to fail.

Through almost a decade of hard work by a small committee of four, we have used science to prove that some seatbelts in some fire apparatus were the wrong seatbelts to use in a fire truck application. We found that when a firefighter dons bunker gear, it increases the size and body mass of that firefighter by one third.

It appears that the apparatus, the seat and the seatbelts weren't designed to accommodate bunkered 2012 firefighters. Many firefighters have complained for years that apparatus seatbelts are extremely difficult to put on, if not impossible. So when I ask my firefighters why they didn't wear seatbelts and one of them says they don't work, he was right. Until now.

One fire department just completed a retrofit of its fire apparatus with a new seatbelt package designed for firefighters. This seatbelt system was designed to accommodate firefighters in bunker gear riding in SCBA seats. Firefighters are able to buckle up in about 3 seconds with minimal effort.

The excuses used in the past not to wear seatbelts have been designed out of this new seatbelt system. This fire department is now in the process of rewriting its seatbelt policy and considering a training bulletin, as well as incorporating this training into its training academy.

Recommendations at this point would be to include a training component in your rookie school on how to properly ride on your fire apparatus to address this training deficiency. Remember, most employees you hire all have one thing in common—they've never been in a vehicle of any kind without a seatbelt on. So fire chiefs and fire service leaders need to leverage this fact through awareness and training, which could result in a dramatic increase in firefighter seatbelt use.

Continue to advance new seatbelt technologies for all fire apparatus. Refuse to give subliminal permission to stand up in the apparatus crew cab by rejecting raised roof cab configurations when purchasing new apparatus.

Implementing these recommendations will have a dramatic impact on the firefighter seatbelt culture and will surely increase seatbelt usage.

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