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Flashpoint: Seatbelt issue simmers despite numbers of deaths

I've written about this before and probably will do so again unless something in the nature of firefighter professionalism finally changes for the better. According to statistics quoted in a study being conducted by the U.S. Air Force into safety standards for firefighters, 70 per cent of the firefighters killed in apparatus accidents in the last seven years were not wearing their seatbelts.

December 6, 2007
By Peter Sells

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I've written about this before and probably will do so again unless something in the nature of firefighter professionalism finally changes for the better. According to statistics quoted in a study being conducted by the U.S. Air Force into safety standards for firefighters, 70 per cent of the firefighters killed in apparatus accidents in the last seven years were not wearing their seatbelts. An analysis conducted by the NFPA of 30 years of data showed that of 406 firefighters who died on the road, 76 per cent were known not to be restrained. In other words, in North America, 10 to 12 unbuckled firefighters die each year on the job.

In 1982, firefighter Joseph Tynan Jr. was riding behind the jump seat of an apparatus in Brookline, Mass. He fell to the pavement when the truck made a turn, striking his head and suffering a permanently disabling injury. The legal actions subsequent to this incident resulted in the enclosed cabs and seatbelts on our apparatus today.

This is an example of the "catastrophic theory of reform" in the fire service. According to the theory, major changes in safety and preparedness occur only in the wake of disaster, often requiring multiple occurrences of essentially similar events before the need for change is recognized and change is finally implemented. The theory is inherently reactive After all, you can't change an existing bad situation proactively. You can take steps to prevent recurrences, however, and that is pro-active by definition.

But this is the 21st century. Surely we could throw some more modern technology at this problem. It is a sad reality that companies make money by manufacturing and selling ignition interlock devices that won't allow an engine to start if a seatbelt is unfastened on a seat that is bearing weight. How hard is it to buckle the belt behind your back and render this technology useless? Training is not the answer and neither is technology.

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Learning theorists have defined the domains of knowledge, skills and attitudes. Education addresses the knowledge and training addresses the skill. Are we recruiting and hiring morons? No, of course we aren't. All firefighters know how to fasten a seatbelt before they come on the job but we educate them on their legal obligation to buckle up and reinforce the message in their training anyway. Where I differ from most of the theorists is in how to address the third domain – attitudes. There is no direct way to make people change their attitudes. You cannot tell people what to think or feel. Sure, there are supervisors and managers who try to do so but the tactics are unsound and 100 per cent ineffective. Changes in workplace attitudes start with consistent messaging and modelling of desired behaviours from the top down and the bottom up. These are hallmarks of leadership. The best case is a firefighter who sees consistent compliance with seatbelt policy and follows suit. The next best is a firefighter who sees another firefighter's behaviour corrected by an officer and who therefore learns to comply. The worst case is a firefighter who complies only after seeing a teammate go crashing through a windshield or flying out a door onto the pavement.

An enclosed cab did not prevent 33-year old firefighter Tracey Killoran, a mother of two small children, from flying out the door of a responding apparatus in Kingston, Ont., in September. That is also what happened to 27-year-old firefighter Brian Hunton in Amarillo, Texas, in 2005. Brian was not buckled in and died two days after the incident. In his memory, the National Fire Service Seat Belt Pledge asks firefighters to sign a personal pledge to "wear my seat belt whenever I am riding in a fire department vehicle" and to "ensure that all my brother and sister firefighters riding with me wear their seatbelts." As of Oct. 15, 41,509 firefighters had signed the pledge. Fire departments with 100 per cent compliance with the pledge have been registered from Japan, Australia, Guam, Italy and 33 American states.

So here is the call to action. Who is going to pick up the ball for a similar pledge in Canada? If a fire chief can be publicly quoted saying it is acceptable to cut corners on adherence to policy in our haste to respond to an emergency, then what exactly is the state of professionalism in our industry?

In the meantime, what should we do to ensure that seatbelts are worn? If I cannot directly change the attitude of the firefighters under my supervision, and they do not adopt the change internally, is the battle lost? The bottom line is that, as an officer, I really don't care what you think on this subject and it's not up for discussion. I don't need you to feel good about it; I don't need you to even feel that it is necessary. I just need you to do it. Act like a professional. Buckle up and shut up about it. We have work to do.

District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of Fire Engineers Canada Branch.


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