We’re constantly seeing reminders around the station and in the fire service media about the importance of properly wearing safety belts whenever riding any apparatus that is in motion. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), through its “Everyone Goes Home” initiative and the National Seatbelt Pledge, has changed the culture regarding seatbelt use in many departments.
Although this category of firefighter fatalities has declined significantly, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), we continue to see deaths and serious injuries involving unbelted firefighters. In the past decade, more than 200 firefighters have been killed responding to or returning from incidents. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates that more than 10,700 firefighters have been injured in that same period. There is no firm estimate of the percentage of those killed and injured who were wearing seatbelts, but we know anecdotally that a substantial portion were not.
Wearing a lap/shoulder seatbelt is the single most important step anyone can take to reduce injury in a motor vehicle accident. Studies sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conclude that seatbelt use in cars and pickup trucks reduces the risk of injury by half or more. It is reasonable to assume the reduction would be greater in the generally larger vehicles that make up much of the fire service fleet.
States have recognized the value of seatbelts, so much that every state except New Hampshire now requires seatbelt use by the general adult population. The basic laws are simple. They typically require drivers and passengers to properly use the seatbelt system when riding in a motor vehicle. The legal burden for ensuring everyone uses seatbelts often falls on the driver (i.e., “No person shall operate a motor vehicle...”). But a very complicated set of laws underlies this simple principle.
No two states write their laws identically. They include numerous limitations, exceptions or exemptions. The biggest loophole comes in the 24 states where only front-seat occupants must use seatbelts. Unless there is a separate rule for fire service vehicles in these states, half or more of the crews on any rig are exempt from the seatbelt-use requirement.
States have varying definitions for the term “motor vehicle,” with seven that specifically exclude emergency vehicles. More than 20 states have some form of exemption for persons riding in emergency vehicles. Perhaps the most peculiar language comes from Vermont, where an emergency responder is exempt from the belt-use requirement if he or she “finds it necessary” to be unrestrained in order to perform his or her duties.
Further, states have special rules that exempt public vehicles from commercial and private passenger vehicle requirements. These exemptions could be found in yet a different section of a state’s law and may create different requirements for seatbelt use. Because many volunteer fire departments are private corporations, they may or may not have the same rules regarding seatbelt use as public departments.
As you can see, a simple law becomes complex in its details. There are specific exemptions of various types that are written into the seatbelt law itself. There are special rules for public-use vehicles. Finally, there may be court decisions interpreting the various laws and how they interrelate.
It’s hard to imagine that a police officer would pull over a fire service vehicle and issue a ticket for failure to properly wear a seatbelt. But that doesn’t mean a seatbelt law covering the fire service would be meaningless. Laws also serve as guideposts and educational tools. Most people will follow the law simply because it is there – without regard to the potential threat of enforcement. Many people look to the law for guidance and make the (false) assumption that it is permissible to ride without using the safety belt when they see the exemption.
Laws do make a difference. They make a statement to people that the subject is something important. And, when an organization actively supports a proposal for changing the law, it sends a powerful message about that organization’s priorities. We in the fire service should urge the elimination of any loopholes in state laws regarding seatbelt use, both for ourselves and for the public we protect. Until we do so, it is difficult to take seriously claims that using seatbelts is our priority.
STEVE BLACKISTONE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a Maryland attorney who directs state and local liaison activities for an agency of the federal government. Prior to his current position, he served in a variety of posts on the staff of the U.S. House of Representatives, working both on the personal staffs of members of Congress and on congressional committees. Blackistone also is an active volunteer EMT/firefighter with the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.