How Do You Get Firefighters to Wear Their Seatbelts?

May 14, 2004
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.

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.

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.

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.

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. (Photo 1) So, he tried fastening the seatbelt before he closed the door and it worked without a problem or loss of response time. Captain Brooks said: "Chief Palamaro explained it to us as a safety issue and it is a rule. As officers we are to follow and enforce rules, Bob is trying to make us betters leaders. The Chief expects enforcement because he will enforce himself." Captain Brooks continues: "My guys have been great, it is a mutual enforcement I say seatbelts if I forget the guys remind me."

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. He also attached a job aid (piece of duck tape with the word belts) to the dashboard to remind him and his crew. Captain Van Dyke admitted he would not go a block down the street from his house to visit his parents without his seatbelt on. He said, "I also always use the seatbelt when I'm acting battalion chief. So why not in the ladder, it just makes sense."

Chief Palamaro also understood the importance of informal leadership in the fire service. In this regard, senior firefighter Joe Ryan of Ladder 2 was the key. Ryan is a very well respected firefighter seasoned, knowledgeable, and competent. The person you want with you on a working fire. If Bob could get his friend Joe to buy in on the use of seatbelts the other firefighters would natural follow his lead. Joe instantly became a seatbelt disciple when Bob explained the issues.

Firefighter Al Mallen of Engine 2 remembers when Chief Palamaro talked to the troops at roll call. "The Chief requested the men buckle up 'Lets make a conscious effort to do this' is what Bob said." Mallen recalls that firefighter Joe Ryan had started buckling up. Mallen said, "I wasn't taught that buckling up was important in rookie school. The chief is counting on us to be safe. You cannot argue with that. Chief Palamaro is setting the example he buckles up." Firefighter Mallen concludes: "Each captain needs to enforce it if it is to go citywide. I don't want to get my captain jammed up. It needs to be reinforce at the officer meetings, it is a rule, it is the right thing to do, and it is the safe thing to do."

There is more work to do. The way some of the seats are mounted on the ladder trucks (too close) makes it difficult to buckle up. The department is working on a solution.

Can you get your firefighters to wear their seatbelts? YES! It will take soul searching, unlearning bad habits, learning good habits, engineering, and leadership. Whether you are a chief, company officer, senior firefighter, or rookie firefighter you can do it. BUCKLE UP! That's an order - we can all live with.

Dr. Burton A. Clark, EFO is the Management Science Program Chair for the National Fire Academy and Director of an Emergency Support at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. . Burt writes and lectures nationally on fire service research and professional development. If you would like to contact Burton, he can be reached at [email protected]

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!