Seatbelts: The Hugh Lee Newell Story

The logic for not following a safety procedure because nothing bad ever happened to you or anyone you know, goes beyond seat belts, it is the root cause of our poor safety culture.


...no firefighter I know has ever been killed because they didn't wear their seat belt." This is the latest excuse I was given by a firefighter for not using his seat belt. He made the statement in front of the department's safety officer and other firefighters at a social event. Adult beverages were being served so his illogical thinking may have been due to a loss of brain cells. The safety officer commented to me latter that the department still has a lot of work to do to achieve a 100% seat belt use compliance rate.

The logic (excuse) for not following a safety procedure because nothing bad ever happened to you or anyone you know, goes beyond seat belts, it is the root cause of our poor safety culture. We know the safety doctrine, we have the skill to perform, we have the equipment but we choose not to make safety a priority.

The fire service relies a lot on experience as the best teacher. If that experience includes not following safety procedures with no negative outcome we perpetuate the wrong behavior. If the company officer reinforces the wrong behavior by not correcting it, doing it themselves, or not disciplining the wrong behavior it is repeated. If the Battalion Chief sees the failure to follow safety procedures and turns a blind eye the wrong behavior is accepted. If the Fire Chief knows the safety rules are not being followed they are condoning a poor safety culture as the department standard.

The firefighter's excuse for not using his seat belt is bad enough but the logic I was given by a deputy fire chief from a large metropolitan fire department disturbs me even more. This chief officer is a national speaker and author who I personally respect very highly. When I asked him what his fire department was doing to get seat belt use compliance his answer was, "Seat belts are not a priority for us. You have to pick what is important." This justification for not enforcing seat belt rules is not illogical; it is purposeful, thought out, intentional and very dangerous. If he is correct we need to eliminate our seat belt SOP's and remove seat belts from fire apparatus. I did not get to ask him if he used his seat belt in the chief's car.

The fact is safety standards, SOPs, and equipment of today did come about because some firefighter, in many cases more then one, was injured or killed. The fallen firefighter's friends and fire department demanded that changes in equipment, training, standards, and operations be made so it did not happen again. We do not want firefighters to die in vain.

All aspects of firefighter safety must be a priority. If we only follow the safety doctrine that is convenient our poor safety record will continue. Worse yet, if we only follow the safety rules after a firefighter we know is killed or hurt, what does that say about who we are and the price, in death and injury, we are willing to pay.

The problem is we do not know our history. So we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. At a deeper level we dishonor those who came before us and in many cases they gave their life so we can be safer today.

But one person can learn for the past and become a leader in creating a positive safety culture in their fire department. Engineer Duane Hughes, Engine 1 Columbus Mississippi Fire Department is making a big difference in his department after he met Engineer Hugh Lee Newell. We can all learn for the following story.


Taking a Stand on Seat Belt Use, Hugh Lee's Story

By Duane Hughes

Traditionally, leadership in the fire service has been seen reserved for the higher ranks. Rarely have foot soldiers established fire department policy or vision. Recently I was presented with an opportunity to change this standard. Simply stated, I challenged firefighters to use seat belts. Holding the rank of Engineer, I was able to persuade many in my department that seat belt use is not optional. With determination and a little courage, I proved leadership can spring from the lower ranks.

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