How Do You Get Firefighters to Wear Their Seatbelts?

With all the risks a firefighter assumes, how we as a discipline can tolerate anyone not wearing his or her seatbelt is beyond my comprehension.


If you are Battalion Fire Chief Bob Palamaro, of the Atlantic City New Jersey Fire Department, you ask them to do it. Now some readers will respond "It can't be that easy to get firefighters to do the right thing when it comes to wearing seatbelts." It is easy but not simple. It takes soul searching, unlearning and relearning, engineering, and leadership.

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Photo 1 - Photo By Burton Clark
Captain Bill Brooks of Engine 1 realized that when he closed the cab door there was very little room for him to get his hand on the seatbelt to pull it down and attach it.

In December 2003 Chief Palamaro was in the audience when I was lecturing on the importance of getting firefighters to wear their seatbelt. After 34 years in the fire service I have come to the conclusion that we do not need to learn anything new to stop firefighter deaths and injuries we just have to do the right thing 100 % correct 100% of the time. Because in every NIOSH LODD report the victims and others were not following department SOP's or training doctrine and in most cases an officer know about the wrong behavior and did nothing to correct it.

With all the risks a firefighter assumes, how we as a discipline can tolerate anyone not wearing his or her seatbelt is beyond my comprehension. We all must take some responsibility for the dearth or injury of any firefighter when they are not using seatbelts. Because it could have just as easily been us or one of our crew if we are all not in compliance.

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Photo 2 - Photo By Burton Clark
He tried fastening the seatbelt before he closed the door and it worked without a problem or loss of response time.

After I finished my lecture Bob said that he had to admit to himself that "We had the seatbelt policy but it must go beyond that to - doing it." In his gut Chief Palamaro realized that he was violating the seatbelt rule in the battalion chief car. But he would not think of driving in his personal car without seatbelts. He identified the core problem for himself as "The urgency and emergency over comes you, you become preoccupied and forget about your own safety." To enforce the seatbelt policy Bob concluded he would have to set the example.

He analyzed his own behavior. His practice was to wear the portable radio strap over his left shoulder with the radio hanging down his right side. When he got into the chief's car the radio rested on the seatbelt connection making it difficult to buckle up. He decided to change his behavior. He started taking his radio off and laying it on the passenger set then clipping his seatbelt before he started the car. In the beginning Bob had to consciously think of the steps to follow until they became routine. He did admit some times he would forget to unfasten the seatbelt when getting out of the chief's car; this made him and the crews that saw him get stuck laugh but, it reminded them how valuable that seatbelt would be in the event of a crash. In short order Chief Palamaro had changed his seatbelt behavior. Now he realized that a friend of his (Burt Clark) would be visiting the ACFD soon and would be asking about seatbelt usage. So Bob went to the next step.

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Photo 3 - Photo By Burton Clark
Captain Bob Van Dyke of Ladder 1 needed to move the SCBA in the cab so he could get the seatbelt on. The SCBA was at the officer's back it was moved to the middle seat position.

Bob was working on New Years so he decided to ask his shift in his battalion if they would make a New Years resolution to wear their seatbelts. As part of the process Bob told his seatbelt story, including how he personally had changed his behavior and made the commitment. Then he handed out the Clark articles on seatbelts and asked the crews if they would commit to using seatbelts because it was the right thing to do and it was a rule.

Bob knew that the company officers would be critical to the success of this safety behavior change so he encouraged them to evaluate their apparatus for environmental factors that my hinder seatbelt usage.

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