It is a tragedy we should never see happen – a firefighter’s life cut short because of a vehicle accident. Yet each year, 25% of all line-of-duty deaths involve vehicle crashes. Many of these lives could have been saved if only the firefighter had taken a second to buckle their seatbelts. What can we as the fire service do to prevent these tragedies and how can we create a culture within our departments where seatbelt use and vehicle safety is a top priority?
A focus on vehicle safety is paramount if we are to reduce the number of line-of-duty deaths and injuries of firefighters, yet the nature of the fire service includes years of tradition and stubborn personalities. Changing vehicle behaviors, including wearing seatbelts, is extremely difficult, particularly for volunteers. In struggling communities desperately trying to recruit and retain members, it is hard to consider implementing new or stricter standard operating procedures (SOPs) and increasing training requirements. That, however, is exactly what needs to be done in order to create a culture within a department where safe driving and seatbelt use is expected and adhered to.
Statistics show that we are not doing enough. As long as a single firefighter is killed or injured from a preventable cause, such as not wearing a seatbelt, then we haven’t done all that we can do to protect our personnel. The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) reports that over the past decade, an average of 15 firefighters died in vehicle crashes each year. In 2009, there were 16 on-duty fatalities caused by vehicle crashes – nine involving fire department apparatus, two involving personal vehicles and five involving aircraft. This is way down from the 28 deaths in 2008, but while we are heading in the right direction, we must do better.
In many of the cases reported in 2009, seatbelts were not used or were not available in older apparatus. According to a report released by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), driver inattention, weather conditions, lack of vehicle maintenance, minimal safety features on older apparatus, and excessive speed were found to be contributing factors in the fatalities.
In addition, the NFPA reports that 820 firefighters were injured in 2009 as a result of collisions involving fire department emergency vehicles. Another 870 collisions were reported in personal vehicles while the departments were responding to or returning from incidents, resulting in another 100 injuries.
Yet, to many firefighters these statistics are just numbers. Sad numbers, yes, but not creating a profound enough impact to inspire changes to their driving or seatbelt behaviors. The numbers don’t become real until a vehicle accident happens to them or someone they know. But by then it’s too late. We need to hammer the point home and get through to our departments’ members now – before the worst happens.
So what can we do? First, we must make it clear that “Safety Tops Our Priorities” (STOP). Department leaders need to instill the values of safe driving and using seatbelts. While you may not want to ruffle feathers and risk annoying valued and needed department members, the alternative is far worse. When your members’ safety is on the line, you can’t afford not to take a stand. You must make it clear that vehicle safety is not optional, and to be part of the team all members must adhere to the requirements.
NFPA Standards as Guides
There are several NFPA standards that departments can look to when developing their own policies. These include:
• NFPA 1911 – Standard for the Inspection, Testing, Maintenance and Retirement of In-Service Automotive Fire Apparatus, which outlines apparatus service and maintenance programs to keep them in safe operating conditions.
• NFPA 1002 – Standard on Fire Apparatus Drive/Operator Professional Qualifications, which outlines the minimum requirements for apparatus drivers and operators in emergency and non-emergency situations.