National Fire Service Seat Belt Pledge Kicks Off in D.C.

Everyone knows it's important to buckle up - and Thursday a national safety group helped sweeten the pot for a group of D.C. firefighters who pledged to do just that.

Firefighters with D.C. Fire and EMS are the first in a major metropolitan city to participate in the National Fire Service Seat Belt Pledge. The program kicked off at Engine 28.

The effort is backed in part by the Home Safety Council and, to make it a bit more appealing, Council President Meri-K Appy made brownies for firefighters who vowed to always wear their belt.

Appy lives just a few blocks away from the station. She watches trucks leave the station and worries about the safety of the crew on board.

"I am here as a neighbor," she said. "Think of me as your mom away from home." She affectionately refers to those assigned to Engine 28 as "my firefighters."

The U.S. Fire Administration, International Association of Fire Chiefs, National Volunteer Fire Council, National Fire Protection Association and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation have all lent their support to the program as well.

That's because they all know the big difference the small act of buckling up can make.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, trauma was listed as the second leading cause of line-of-duty deaths. And of the 104 deaths this year, 12 firefighters were not wearing a seat belt.

"On almost a weekly basis, firefighters are injured or killed," said D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Dennis Rubin. "With the proper use of seat belts, we can cut that down dramatically."

So far, more than 40,000 firefighters nationwide have taken the pledge, and more than 80 departments have achieved 100 percent participation.

And it's not just full-fledged firefighters vowing to remember their seat belts. A group of 30 or so young cadets were on hand for the kick-off, having already vowed that once they are out of training and on the job, they won't forget the importance of safety.

"It's always safety, safety, safety," said Cadet Berney Williams. He said that when he and the other cadets train, safety is always a priority. And when they go out on rotation to get some real-world experience, trainers emphasize that even though cadets will just be riding on the truck to observe, seat belts must be buckled.

Rubin said he was pleased to host the kickoff, and set the precedence for other major metropolitan departments.

Not only is it a good idea to be buckled up while a vehicle is in motion, it's also the law. "Our people know how important it is to wear their seat belt," he said, adding that for some, it will involve a behavioral change.. "They know the risks of taking unnecessary chances."

There are seat belts in every position, but the chief said some firefighters complain about not being able to fit them around them when they're geared up. Rubin predicts there will be passive restraints in apparatus in the next five to 10 years. They may be similar to those on rides at amusement parks.

While Rubin, his senior staff as well as recruits, cadets and other firefighters have taken the pledge and oath, the chief admits it's an honor thing.

He will rely on the officer on the unit to make sure everyone is buckled up. Rubin said that's as important as making sure all firefighters have their gear on. "Obviously, we're not going to be watching with cameras in the middle of the night."

Dr. Burt Clark said the death of one of his National Fire Academy students had a profound impact on him.

When he learned that Firefighter Brian Hunton was killed when he toppled from an engine en route to a call, his seat belt mission started. His goal is to get every single first responder to buckle up.

"Firefighting is the most dangerous occupation in the world already," he told those gathered outside the fire station Thursday afternoon, adding that it makes no sense to add dangerous odds.

He said he was pleased that Rubin was stepping out of the box to enforce the rule. Clark predicted it may be pivotal to getting other major departments to get on board.

"It's all about accountability," he said. "Every single person on this truck has to accountable."

USFA's Deputy Assistant Administrator Charlie Dickinson addressed those cadets directly at the kick-off. He said even though they may view him as old, he knows very well what goes on inside the truck.

"And what you don't know is what goes on in there when something catastrophic happens," he told them. The.job you have is dangerous enough."

Dickinson also presented a check for $376,000.

The money will be used to purchase a simulator for the training division. The unit will include computer technology that will enable drivers to practice their driving skills. Various challenges can be programed into the device.

"It will an ambulance simulator. We already have ones that look like the cabs of engines, trucks and tillers," said Lt. Timmy Jones, who is assigned to the training academy.

"This check...is from the Federal government," Dickinson said. "Because the American public has rightfully decided that there is an investment to me made in the American fire service."

When it came time for Rubin, his staff and the cadets to raise their right hands to take the oath, other firefighters joined in.

"It's a great idea," said Deputy Chief Michael Willis, assigned to risk management. "Everyone should be buckled up at all times."

Lt. Richard Zegowitz said he's heard the excuses -- "It was difficult 'cause we were getting gear on."

That may not cut it any longer, he said.

And, for firefighters who may still be on the fence about whether seat belts are important, Cathy Hedrick of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation drove the point home.

Hedrick's son was killed in the line-of-duty, so she knows first-hand what a devastating loss feels like.

"This act -- this simple act -- can save lives," she said. "You are ensuring that everyone gets to go home."

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