Leadership: We Killed Firefighter Brian Hunton

If you are the fire chief and you know that you do not have a 100% compliance 100% of the time with your seat belt policy - you killed Firefighter Brian Hunton.

Changing the fire service safety culture is a big challenge because firefighting is inherently dangerous. But changing our seat belt culture is doable now. We have the knowledge, we have the equipment, we have the standards, and we have the moral obligation. But are we willing to draw the line in the sand, are we willing to put our collective leadership on the line? Are we willing to impose zero tolerance on seat belt use?

Fifty five percent of us wear our seat belt but that leaves 45% who do not. It is human nature for some members of an organization not to follow rules voluntarily, so they need to be coerced formally or informally to meet the standards. Let me illustrate.

Formal coercion is expressed in punishment for breaking the rules, for example. If you are a career firefighter and are late for work, there are consequences for your behavior. The rules and consequences are understood by all. They go something like this: Show up for work on time or this will happen: first offense, a letter of reprimand; second offense, days off without pay; habitual lateness, EAP (employee assistance program) counseling; and continued lateness, termination. The volunteer fire service has participation standards (drill, meetings, responses, fund raising, activities, etc.) members must meet to be a volunteer. If they fail to meet the participation standards, consequences look something like this: extra duty, suspension from riding the apparatus, suspension from the fire station, and termination from the department. Informal coercion, also called peer pressure, is how you treat those who are not conforming. The person is shunned by the group, given a bad reputation, not included in social activities, and counseled by others to do the right thing to be part of the team.

I will bet your career department has over 99% of its members report to work on time. Your volunteer department has over 99% of its members meet their participation requirements. This is likely the case, because our culture dictates that good firefighters show up on time and meet their participation requirements. Rarely do the formal consequences need to be used, but in certain circumstances, they have been. So we all know where the line in the sand is and that leadership will take a stand. The informal consequences help people conform because they want to be part of a winning team.

What percentage of seat belt compliance do you have? If the fire service is going to fix the seat belt problem, we must change our culture by making seat belt rules and the accompanying consequences more important than attendance. No one dies if we are late for work; no one dies if we miss the meeting; we do die without our seat belts on. We must draw the line and take a stand because good firefighters wear their seat belt.

So, here are the new national formal and informal consequences for not using seat belts; they go into effective immediately:

  • A firefighter not wearing a seat belt when the apparatus moves will be suspended for one shift without pay (career) or suspended from the fire station for one week (volunteer). The officer in charge will receive the same discipline. The other firefighters on the apparatus will receive the same discipline.

You can change your seat belt culture or you can think Clark has lost his mind. Either way, I am sitting here crying for Brian Hunton.

Firefighter Brian Hunton 27 years old, with the Amarillo TX FD for 2 years fell out of the ladder truck Saturday April 23 responding to a fire. Brian was putting his gear on, the door opened on a turn, and he fell out. He died from his injuries on Monday. My deepest sympathy to his family, friends, crew, and department. I hope we honor Brian by learning from this tragedy and change our seat belt culture.