Two Seat Belt LODDs Remembered

It is Firefighter Safety Week. The slogan this year is: Protect Yourself: Your Safety, Health and Survival Are Your Responsibility.

In 2008 we lost 10 firefighters to no seat belt; in 2007 we lost 12 to no seat belt. How many will we lose in 2009?

Over 300 firefighters have been killed in the line of duty over the past 30 years due to no seat belt. We are still averaging 10 seat belt LODDs per year. Of all the ways a firefighter can be injure or killed not wearing a seat belt is the most tragic because it is 100 percent preventable.

Over 107,000 firefighters have taken the National Seat Belt Pledge and over 500 fire departments have achieved 100 percent participation. The North Carolina fire service is leading the nation with 159 organizations that have 100 percent.

The objectives of the Seat Belt Pledge campaign are 1,000,000 signature and 30,000 fire departments with 100 percent participation. The goal is one whole year with no LODDs due to no seat belt being used.

When you conduct your safety week activities have all you members read the following two stories. I asked my friends Stan and Richard to write these stories because they may prevent another tragedy.

Collateral Damage
by Stan Lake

Where were you when...? The major events in history that affect the nation or the world are all easily remembered. We can easily recall where we were and what we were doing. In the fire service, a line of duty death of one of our firefighters can generate those same memories.

If we see it on the evening news, read about in a newspaper or get more details from Billy G's "The Secret List", we can feel a sense of loss for those other departments. We are sorry, but are also glad it didn't happen here to us (to me). And then, it did.

My wife and I went out to lunch on that day in August, 2005. While enjoying a quiet afternoon at a favorite restaurant, I noticed the weather outside had changed from distant clouds to dark skies and intense winds. Clouds of dust and loose debris were swirling down the street past the restaurant. Other customers were remarking about this unseasonable, sudden storm. I silently hoped the wind would be accompanied by rain -- strong winds in August in southern California are not a good thing.

As a Deputy Chief with CAL FIRE/Riverside County Fire Department, my cell phone didn't ring often on the weekend. However with this wind event, I wasn't surprised when the call came. It was one of my battalion chiefs. His report was not what I expected. "Chief", he said, "Engine 58 has been in an accident. It sounds bad. There are injuries." I requested more details. The battalion chief said he was en route and would be on scene in a couple of minutes. His next report carried my worst fears. Two firefighters had been ejected from the engine. One of them had ended up under the engine. He was being transported to the nearest hospital with major injuries. I questioned the battalion chief about the firefighter -- who was it and how severe were the injuries. "It's Chris Kanton. We just need the doctor to tell what we already know. He didn't survive."

My emotions were simply numb. I couldn't say anything for a moment. Then the years of experience kicked in, duty called and I went to work. I coordinated with the Chief of the Department and other members of the executive team for the things that must be done. While others would make family notifications, work with law enforcement agencies and initiate our own investigation, I would go to the hospital that was receiving the other injured firefighters.

When I arrived at the hospital emergency room, both firefighters were being examined and treated. I soon learned the firefighter that had not been ejected has only minor contusions and abrasions. The other firefighter -- the operator of the engine -- although conscious and coherent, had suffered unknown, possibly severe head injuries. . The doctors wanted to transport him to another facility better equipped to treat his injuries. I asked if I could see him and was given the OK.

When he saw me, he started to cry. "They won't tell me about Chris." I looked at him and knew I had to be honest. "Chris didn't make it." I stayed with him for a while and we talked. Talked, not about the accident, that would happen soon, but about him taking care of himself and doing what was necessary to get better. I saw to the other firefighter's needs and ensured he had family there to be with him until the doctors released him.

I went out of the ER to see the other firefighters whom I knew had been gathering. There were several of them waiting for news. By this time, they already knew about Chris. I looked into their faces and saw a variety of emotions. Some showed fear, some anger, and some grief, others simply stoic. There were hugs all around. When I started in the fire service, hugging was not common. I'm glad that has changed. I felt their pain as I tried to stay calm for them and me. I stayed with the injured firefighter until he was transported to the next hospital. He went by helicopter, I followed by vehicle. It was determined he had suffered a concussion and severe lacerations to his head and ear. His injuries were not life threatening, but he would be hospitalized for a few days.

Finally, I was able to start to deal with what caused the accident and how the injuries occurred. The accident was caused by a sudden, severe rain storm that made the highway extremely dangerous to negotiate. The engine operator lost control of the vehicle, collided with the center divider and careened off the roadway and down an embankment. It hit two trees before coming to rest on the roadway below the freeway. As the engine spun out of control, Chris (riding in the back-facing open cab) was ejected. He was subsequently run over by the engine causing fatal injuries. When the engine hit one of the trees, the operator was ejected through the windshield. The third firefighter remained in his seat. How had the one firefighter not received serious injuries while the others had? I, of course, already knew the answer. Seatbelts don't fail -- unless they're not being used.

Chris' funeral was everything you have heard about those events. The bagpipes, the procession, the ringing of the last alarm, the eulogies; these all were happening in a blur to me. I was still numb. I went home. I was numb. I could think of little else but Chris. He was one of my "boys". Finally, I just cried. And, cried...

I realized I needed to talk to someone about my feelings -- feelings that I had somehow been responsible. My wife knew I was having problems and was very supportive. However, professional counseling is what was needed. I have been very fortunate to have an outstanding counselor. It has taken quite a while for me to really deal with those events.

The engine operator also had an ordeal to cope with after the accident. As is normal, he was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation. He would not return to work for almost two years. After the accident investigation, he was charged with vehicular manslaughter. The charge was eventually dropped when weight-distribution factors in the engine's design were shown to be the cause of the accident. Although exonerated, he will always carry the memories of that terrible day.

I have always been very concerned about the safety of firefighters. Obviously, it is an inherently dangerous job. The fire service spends large sums to ensure the safety of its members from all manner of hazards found on the job. It has always seemed natural to me to buckle up when in a vehicle. I'm old enough to remember when cars didn't come equipped with seatbelts. I helped my Dad install them in our car. I assumed everybody else used them just as I did. As is often the case, making assumptions can be bad for everyone concerned. I've talked to many firefighters about seatbelts and their use. I found most firefighters do use their seatbelts. However, there are many (too many) that don't. There are several reasons cited when this practice is rationalized. We've heard them all over and over again. In the minds of these individuals, the possible consequences are, at best, minimized. "Let's just jump on the rig and get to the call." As leaders, it is our responsibility to demand the safety of our people. We talk about "everyone goes home". You can't return from a call if you don't get there in the first place.

I am glad to see the memory of Chris Kanton goes on. He can be found on the Internet. His name is on a plaque at the National Fallen Firefighters Monument in Emmitsburg. A portion of an interstate highway and a fire station have been dedicated to his memory. His legacy should be an inspiration to all. His life, as short as it was, was a full one complete with all the dreams a firefighter with tremendous potential can have. His life is still inspirational to those that knew and loved him, as well as those that simply hear about him. Hopefully, his memory will also prevent the loss of another firefighter who doesn't think the use of a seatbelt is that important. Hopefully, his memory will prevent the grief that must be endured by another family, by other friends, other co-workers, and by other chief officers charged with firefighter safety. Collateral damage is what can happen to those close to a serious incident. I never thought it could involve me. Don't let it happen to you.

Stan Lake
Deputy Chief (ret.)
CAL FIRE/Riverside County Fire Department

John Francis Keane, Another Senseless Loss To The Fire Service"
by Richard Hart

Incident #07-2224 seemed innocuous enough, another call for a kitchen fire, of which there were 175 for 2006. The standard response, 3 engines, a truck, the rescue, and a chief officer assigned to the box proceeded as usual. At 1033hrs on May 19, 2007, the world as it was known to the Waterbury Fire Department changed forever.

I was at my son's hockey game when, as often times it does, my cell phone rang and the familiar voice on the other end asked if I had heard of an accident in Waterbury involving apparatus that morning. I said, "No, but will find out and call you back". I immediately called our dispatchers and received the news that Engine 8 and Truck 1 were involved in an accident and John and Joe Fischetti were "critical". I told the coach and my son I had to leave and I made the 15 minute drive to Waterbury Hospital ER where I was met by other off duty firefighters. From the looks on their faces and the tears, I knew the next few hours were going to be the most challenging and gut-wrenching of my career. It was worse. I received an update from the charge nurse who I had known from my years as a paramedic, and she informed me John was to be transported to Yale-New Haven Hospital's Neurological Intensive Care Unit (NICU), with that I knew the outlook was grim at best.

We, as firefighters, often times view promotional exams or large, complex incidents as "the most challenging moment of my career", yet, facing the wife and children of a brother who lay dying in a hospital bed takes the challenges we face to a new level.

Monica sat quietly in the family room with a priest and two nurses, and when I entered, I was amazed at the peace and serenity that surrounded her. I relayed the information about John being transferred to Yale and that I would escort her down. The Chief of Department came in to offer any assistance and permanently assigned me to Monica throughout this ordeal.

That Saturday afternoon in May, John was transported to Yale's NICU, one of the world's most renowned hospitals. Monica, John's sister, Maura, and I followed the ambulance for the forty minute drive.

The muted silence of Yale's NICU was a sharp contrast to the pandemonium of the emergency room at Waterbury Hospital. The head of trauma handled John's case and took time to explain in detail what John faced and the extent of his injuries. In the back of my mind, I knew John died that Saturday morning. For three days, myself and Lt. Bob Wall, John's and my good friend, stayed at the hospital to watch over John and provide support for Monica and the rest of John's family on a rotating basis. Neither of us were away from the hospital for more than five or six hours, just enough time to reacquaint ourselves with our families and grab a few moments of sanity. New Haven firefighters came and went, bringing bagels and sandwiches for us, the hospital provided our department with a large lounge to "live" in for the duration of John's stay. Unfortunately, the hospital was well versed in providing support for the families of public safety personnel, this was another instance of their compassion that went beyond the medical aspect of care.

The days dragged, and on May 22, I brought Monica to her home and I went to my home to visit with my wife and three children. At 2300 hrs, the phone rang and the person on the other end of the line simply stated, "John is trying to die". After a flurry of questions and some confusion, I left for New Haven.

As I was driving, I phoned Bob and explained the situation and that he needed to get to Monica's house. I arranged for the closest Engine company to be at the house to watch the kids until Bob and Monica's mother got there. Bob got to the house and drove Monica to the hospital.

John succumbed to his injuries on May 22 at 0205 hrs surrounded by his wife, brothers and sisters. The irony was that I knew John was gone on May 19, the day of the accident, but the finality of the pronouncement by the doctor was gut-wrenching. I had accompanied John down to the nuclear ct scan required to confirm his death. Monica couldn't bear to be there, so I felt it my duty not to leave his side. At the conclusion of the test, the nurses could not tell me the outcome, but I asked anyway. From her expression I knew the answer then she said how sorry she was. I could not cry, I still had to fulfill my duty.

When we returned to the NICU, Bob looked at me and knew as well. I went out of the unit to where a group of approximately 20 firefighters were standing to announce John's passing.

The wake and funeral were a blur, Bob and I never left each other or the family, only to sleep at home. Monica asked me to write the eulogy for John, which I accepted. I struggled with the content, only because John was truly a shining star, destined for greatness, and was unsure as to the direction to go in. I wrote to his kids, nothing more, nothing less. I told them what a great person their dad was and to never forget the good times they had together. John was one of the most honorable and moral person I have known. I could not cry, too many people needed information and talks on seat belt safety and John as a person. My wife was my rock throughout this whole ordeal. She comforted me and gave me words of wisdom and compassion, and for that, I will always be in her debt and love.

John was my best friend on the department, he was initially assigned to the shift opposite me, but we worked together constantly. We sat many nights together discussing various issues and dilemmas facing our Union, Department, and City. We had many arguments, but we always agreed on one thing, we loved our job. John was destined to be a firefighter, following in his grandfather's footsteps who retired as a Battalion Chief. John was a good firefighter.

These events, or very similar ones, play out across the country approximately 30 times per year. It is time we stop killing ourselves in the senseless, selfish manner of failure to wear a seatbelt. The attitude of our profession must change; we are not bulletproof or indestructible. Take the National Seatbelt Pledge and wear your belt, live the pledge, do not put your loved ones through the agony of your senseless death, do not leave your children without their father, your wife a widow.

It has been two years; much has changed within our department, mostly for the good. There is a John Keane Memorial Golf Tournament every September to raise scholarship money in John's name for elementary school children, the National Seatbelt Pledge was taken by all members, and safety and seat belts have taken on a new meaning; policies were updated and finally enforced. The NIOSH report and police report confirms what we already knew John was not wearing his seatbelt.

I miss John, and I still have not cried.

Richard Hart
Battalion Chief
Waterbury CT.

Thank you Richard and Stan for sharing your loss with us. Your experience is one none of us wants to have. Who is responsible for seat belt us in the fire service? All of us. Take the National Fire Service Seat Belt Pledge get your department a 100% certificate. It is in our power to make sure we all buckle up so everyone goes home.

We did not reach out goal in 2009. Will we in 2010?

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DR. BURTON CLARK EFO, CFO, a Contributing Editor, is the Management Science Program Chair at the National Fire Academy and serves as an operations chief during national disasters and emergencies for the DHS/FEMA. He was a firefighter in Washington, D.C. and Assistant Fire Chief in Laurel, MD. Burton is the host of Leadership on the Line on Radio@Firehouse. To read Burton's complete biography and view their archived articles, click here.