After seeing a dramatic decrease in vehicle-related line-of-duty deaths in 2009, we now find ourselves asking, are we still not getting it, that seatbelts really do save lives? Yes, even firefighters' lives. July 2010 alone saw vehicle crashes that resulted in at least three line-of-duty deaths in addition to a firefighter who, at this writing, was still suffering from serious injuries along with a civilian seriously injured and the death of an unrestrained civilian, all from the same crash.
In Pennsylvania, a firefighter in his privately owned pickup truck was ejected and killed while responding to a fatal head-on collision between two civilian vehicles. The firefighter's pickup hit a guardrail and then he oversteered, causing the truck to travel sideways across two southbound lanes of traffic and onto another guardrail. After riding the guardrail, the pickup rolled over before landing upright in the southbound lanes about 300 yards from the crash to which he was responding. The firefighter was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected and found 15 feet from his vehicle.
A few days later in Ohio, a firefighter was responding in his personal pickup truck to a mutual aid bowling alley fire when a civilian driver stopped at a stop sign, then pulled in front of the firefighter's pickup. The civilian attempted to make a quick turn and the firefighter's vehicle struck the rear of the civilian car and the firefighter's vehicle ended up crashing into a tree. The firefighter was not wearing a seatbelt, but his truck's airbags deployed. He suffered severe incapacitating injuries and was in critical condition. It is unknown at this time whether the civilian driver was wearing a seatbelt, but it is known that, for whatever reason, the civilian vehicle's airbag system did not deploy. A passenger in that car was not wearing a seatbelt and was ejected and killed.
In Virginia, two firefighters were killed while responding to a house fire when their apparatus crashed into an SUV, flipped over several times and landed on a car at an intersection. It is believed that the fire apparatus had a red light and swerved to avoid the SUV and rolled over three times. One firefighter was ejected and then crushed when the apparatus landed on top of him. Neither firefighter was wearing a seatbelt and both were killed in the line of duty. It turns out the call was for a working house fire to which the fire apparatus never arrived. The driver of the apparatus was the fire chief and the town's vice mayor. To all of the families and the fire departments involved, I send my sincerest condolences. For the rest of you, please wear your seatbelts!
Although this item does not involve seatbelts, it's worth noting here: A Pennsylvania firefighter was charged in a crash that occurred in July, when he lost control of a fire department tanker while driving with a beer in his hand and rolled over. His blood alcohol content was 0.16. A passenger in the apparatus said the driver purchased a 30-pack of beer from a distributor before heading back to the fire station. Another fire apparatus driver told police he saw the driver of the tanker driving with a can of beer in his hand. The driver is being charged with driving under the influence (DUI), underage drinking and reckless driving, among other offenses. (In August 2009, a Pennsylvania firefighter was arrested after driving 75 mph in his private vehicle and passing other vehicles with his emergency lights flashing when he struck a motorcycle head-on, killing the motorcyclist. Police said there was no emergency at the time. The firefighter was charged with homicide by vehicle, involuntary manslaughter and other crimes.) In another incident, a Pennsylvania firefighter standing on an aerial ladder watching for hot embers from a fireworks display suffered broken bones in both feet when the aerial ladder was retracted.
Most, if not all of these incidents were preventable had those involved followed accepted practices: Come to a complete stop at all stop signs, red lights, red flashing lights and yield signs. Do not engage in any fire department activities or responses with drugs or alcohol in your system. Do not respond in emergency vehicle mode when it is not necessary. Finally, wear all of the safety equipment that is provided for you, especially seatbelts.
Next month, we will present a guest columnist who will make an important announcement as it relates to seatbelts in the New York City Fire Department.
Finally, as we go to press, we were advised that two firefighters in Canada died in an apparatus accident. Reportedly, they were returning from wildland firefighting duty when the driver lost control of the apparatus, which rolled over. It appears the firefighters were not wearing seatbelts.
MICHAEL WILBUR, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx, and has served on the FDNY Apparatus Purchasing Committee. He consults on a variety of apparatus-related issues around the country. For further information, access Wilbur's website at www.emergencyvehicleresponse.com.