Seat Belts for Dummies: It’s Time To Buckle Up

Perhaps we need one of those popular reference guides written for firefighters on how to buckle a seat belt. Seat belt usage, or the lack thereof, is definitely a “front and center” topic in the industry, and rightly so.

In recent years, firefighters are more likely to be killed responding to or returning from an incident than at the incident. Firefighters are known as heroes, but there is nothing heroic about making the ultimate sacrifice by going through the front windshield of a fire chariot. Our track record is totally unacceptable.

Fortunately, a few fire service organizations and key fire service leaders have decided to take action. This past April, an ad hoc group of interested persons representing the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Health & Safety Section, Fire Apparatus Manufacturers Association (FAMA) and the Safety Task Group of the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Apparatus met in Indianapolis to explore options.

It was not a pleasant meeting.

The manufacturing sector could not understand why the fire service, with its paramilitary organizational structure, could not mandate seat belt usage. Granted, it is hard to argue with their position. However, the fire service representatives at this meeting pointed out the extreme difficulty in many fire apparatus cabs to buckle up.

Chief Complaints

Among the chief complaints were the seats are “shoe-horned” around the engine compartment of custom cabs. The straps are hard to reach and get tangled with the SCBA straps. The straps are too short – yada, yada, yada. Besides, how do you get dressed and don your SCBA while responding?

You are probably getting the picture. It was getting emotional. Luckily, the non-emotional thought process rose to the top and a plan of action was formed.

Foremost, a firefighter anthropometric study was proposed. I’ll save you a trip to the dictionary because that’s what I had to do. It’s a study of human body measurements.  In the subsequent weeks, representatives from FAMA quickly developed a comprehensive study. The study includes almost 40 measurements, including weights, of a firefighter. The weights were recorded in street clothes and with full PPE, including SCBA.

All of the stuff crammed into pockets and attached to the PPE was also weighed. Measurements include firefighters’ length, width, depth and reach. Firefighters were measured in the seated position and the standing position. Lap belt and shoulder strap length requirements were measured.

The Los Angeles City and Charlotte Fire Departments were selected to do the pilot study. These two departments responded immediately to measure 60 firefighters for validation and fine-tuning of the study.

The data was presented at a second meeting of the ad hoc multi-organizational group in Baltimore during the Firehouse Expo. Three things were apparent from the initial analysis. First, the study is very useful. Secondly, more firefighters need to be measured to represent a valid sampling. Lastly, there is an opportunity to improve seating and seat belt/shoulder strap accessibility.

Though the initial measurements were preliminary, it appears firefighters are larger and heavier when wearing full PPE than originally believed by industry experts.

Action Plan

At the time of this writing, a strong action plan is moving forward. At least a thousand firefighters will be measured before the next meeting of the group in September in Dallas during Fire Rescue International.

Instructions will be developed for an SCBA donning time study. A survey or method of determining the sequence of current practices for donning of PPE, donning of SCBA, and fastening seat/shoulder strap will be developed.

FAMA will seek funding to develop a torso dummy for all manufacturers of fire apparatus, apparatus seats and seat/shoulder straps to use for new cabs.

The dummy will be built on the measurements from the study to establish minimum requirements for seating and restraint accessibility. A white paper will be published with the data and analysis of the anthropometric study. Research will continue for alternative methods of restraint.

The NFFF and the IAFC Health and Safety Section will get involved with the educational portion of the initiative and hopefully engage all fire service organizations.

There is an ongoing sidebar conversation to the initiative. And it is if SCBA should be removed from the cab.

Let’s pause for a moment and examine both positions. Those who want them in the cab believe firefighters are supposed to arrive ready for action – rescue and suppression. The time spent donning SCBA after arrival on the scene would create unnecessary delays and could encourage firefighters to engage without wearing their SCBA.

This is viewed as a step backward. Those who want SCBA out of the cab say their removal encourages seat belt usage, makes for a more comfortable ride, and the donning time provides valuable seconds for size-up and team coordination before engagement.

In addition, SCBA restraint in a cab in case of a collision is no longer an issue. It must be stated that removing SCBA from cabs is a growing trend. LA City Fire Department is not putting them in the cabs of their new apparatus and Phoenix removed them from all their cabs several years ago.

If departments that have made a decision to remove them from the cab see an adverse impact in service delivery or SCBA usage, we will probably hear about it and they will reverse their decision.

No Proposals …Yet

As this time, there is no proposal to require SCBA removal from cabs. Could it happen? Well, anyone can make a proposal to NFPA and the Apparatus Technical Committee will have to act upon it. What do I think will happen? Based on current discussions, my opinion is that SCBA removal will not be a requirement. I think it will be encouraged and requirements for improving seating, seat/shoulder strap accessibility and SCBA seat storage will be addressed.

Again, that’s just an opinion. It should be noted a proposal is before the NFPA Technical Committee to require a “black box” event data recorder that will record seat/shoulder strap usage.

Most of the discussion so far has centered on new apparatus. The group still needs to develop plans for existing apparatus. This is an issue that every fire department and every firefighter can take immediate ownership of. If you do not wear a belt, eliminate the excuses.

Yes, it might be inconvenient, but it can be done. If accessing the belts is an issue, find a means of stowing the male end of the seat/shoulder strap so it is readily accessible. If you are developing specifications for a new truck make sure you specify the requirements for seating space and belt restraint accessibility.

Remember, most of the apparatus in service was built to your specifications and the built unit was accepted by your department. If there are problems with the belts, look in the mirror before you blame the manufacturer.

Questions Raised

Lt. Mike Wilbur, FDNY, in his keynote address at Firehouse Expo, raised the question about firefighter families being granted Line Of Duty Deaths (LODD) benefits if the firefighter dies in a vehicle accident while responding/returning and is NOT buckled. Mike’s point was not to harm firefighter families, but for firefighters to be safe for their families.

Currently, LODD benefits are denied if firefighters have traces of illegal drugs or alcohol in their systems.

There will be plenty more about this entire issue as the process continues. Buckle Up!

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has nearly 30 years in the fire service, is Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department’s health and safety officer. He is a member of the NFPA’s technical committees on Fire Apparatus, serving as the chairperson of the group’s safety task force, and structural fire fighting protective clothing and equipment as a member of the correlating committee.

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