Hey, Loo, The Seatbelts Don't Work!

Now that I've caught your interest with that attention-grabbing headline, I hope you will continue to read. It is quite a bold headline, yet it is true. As with all good stories, we should probably start at the beginning. We turn the clock back to...


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Now that I've caught your interest with that attention-grabbing headline, I hope you will continue to read. It is quite a bold headline, yet it is true.

As with all good stories, we should probably start at the beginning. We turn the clock back to February 2006 at Firehouse World in San Diego, CA. The talk of the show was a proposal submitted to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901 committee to ban self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) from fire apparatus cabs. The submitter advocated a policy adopted by Phoenix and several other fire departments under which all SCBA were removed from seatbacks and moved to high side compartments.

At that time, it seemed like a good idea to me. First, I thought that removing a potential high-pressure projectile from the seatbacks might really make cabs safer. Second, I thought about what happens when we arrive at a fire and the crew members rush out of the cab and into a burning building. Not long before, I had the occasion to ask one of my new firefighters what floor we were on while we were inside at a structure fire. He didn't know. I said to him, "If we get separated and you get lost, how are you going to call me on the radio and tell me where you are?" So reason number two could be that during the extra 30 seconds it takes to get the SCBA out of the compartments, firefighters may have a look at the building and do a quick size-up. That's right — actually take a few seconds to look at the building and the visible fire conditions before going inside. What a novel idea!

I also thought that if we take the SCBA (and probably a bunch of other stuff) out of the cabs, we would make it easier for firefighters to fasten their seatbelts. We had been talking and talking about how to get firefighters to fasten their seatbelts. Maybe this would create a sanitized environment where the emphasis would be on personal safety and arriving at the alarm location in one piece. Maybe removing the SCBA and all those extra straps would help solve the seatbelt problem.

We know that we attract risk takers to become firefighters. We then train them to go into burning buildings and push hard to make that rescue, put out that last room of fire or make that floor above. But when we talk about responding to the fire, we want them to sit down, fasten their seatbelts and focus on arriving at the scene safely. Could something as simple as this proposal help solve our eternal risk-management dilemma?

As we were having a group discussion about this proposal, one of my best friends yelled at me. He had never done that before. "When are we going to stop regulating everything and start holding people accountable for their own actions and for their own personal safety?" he asked. "Taking the SCBA out of the cabs will only make a bad situation worse." He was visibly upset.

He went on to state, quite emphatically, that if we take SCBA out of the cab and put them in high side compartments, the highly motivated firefighters will take them out of the compartments and put back into the cabs — except now they won't have the brackets to hold them in place. Would we be better off having those 20-pound projectiles bouncing around loose in the cabs, ready to launch the instant the apparatus wheels leave the pavement?

Of course, some will argue that this is an enforcement issue, or a supervisory issue, but let's think about how much success we have had enforcing seatbelt rules. Maybe the simple solution isn't as simple as I thought. By the end of that night in San Diego, I had changed my mind. We would have to figure out how to convince firefighters to wear their seatbelts without taking their SCBA out of the cabs.

So, I went back to work at the Cross Bronx Express thinking about why firefighters don't fasten their seatbelts. In a rare moment of supervisory brilliance, I thought of asking my firefighters that question. Their answers were both interesting and compelling.

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