Our Daily Bleg: How to Get Firefighters to Wear Seat Belts?

We recently published a post about the dramatic decline in U.S. fire deaths over the past century. A reader named Tricia Hurlbutt writes in with a related challenge:

I work for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and after years of honoring firefighters who died, our executive director decided to try to change some of the basic cultural problems that are getting our guys killed. We now run a national line-of-duty death prevention program, Everyone Goes Home, and while we are making headway in some areas, we still can’t get firefighters (or their officers) to wear their seat belts.

We have been working on this issue for years, and manufacturers even install alarm systems, but entire fire departments circumvent these by ‘pre-buckling’ before they get in. It’s really a cultural thing … they don’t ‘look cool’ or they are not ‘real firefighters’ if they ride to an incident buckled in. This summer, two chiefs riding together, both unbuckled, died in an apparatus rollover in southwestern Virginia.

We could save a lot of lives if we could figure out exactly what would incentivize firefighters to comply with what are usually mandatory sea tbelt policies. Any ideas?


It’s an interesting problem. Makes me think of NYC cops (or cops anywhere, I guess), who spend their shifts enforcing all kinds of laws that, on their personal time, a fraction of them routinely break.

Seat-belt compliance is a strange puzzle. Even though it would seem to be plainly in one’s overall self-interest to wear it, widespread adoption was very hard to come by. As we wrote in SuperFreakonomics:

Congress began setting federal safety standards in the mid- 1960s, but even fifteen years later, seat belt use was laughably low: just 11 percent. Over time, the numbers crept upward, thanks to a variety of nudges: the threat of a traffic ticket; expansive public-awareness campaigns; annoying beeps and flashing dashboard lights if the belt wasn’t buckled; and, eventually, a societal acceptance that wearing a seat belt wasn’t an insult to anyone’s driving ability. Seat-belt use rose to 21 percent by the mid-1980s, 49 percent by 1990, 61 percent by the mid- 1990s, and today it is over 80 percent. That’s a big reason the per-mile auto fatality rate has fallen so much in the United States. Seat belts reduce the risk of death by as much as 70 percent; since 1975 they have saved roughly 250,000 lives.

So: what ideas do you have to help Tricia help save a few firefighters’ lives?


Cash McDollar

How about Giant Electro Magnets that bind the heavy firefighter gear attached to the human.

It would hold the firefighter in place until they get unleashed at the incident. Swich polarity and you can fire the Fireman into the scene like a human cannonball.

Cash McDollar

Two Words: RED ASPHALT

Tumbolian

If it is, in fact, largely an appearance issue with the firefighters, then change the appearance.

Outfit fire department vehicles with specialty restraint harnesses, possibly attaching somehow directly to their personal gear. Speed of buckling/unbuckling would also need to be high.

It would certainly increase the price of the vehicles themselves, but the total cost would be far lower than of the lives which would otherwise be lost.

Jim

Have insurance company add rider that coverage is void if seatbelts not worn while in vehicle. They have time to "pre-buckle" the belts, they have time to properly put them on.
Oh and no disability pay if no seat belts are worn.

Have a news story done interviewing firefighters for "their side" of the story of why they don't wear seat belts and why they think they should still be covered by insurance if involved in an accident while not wearing them.

these won't happen of course. Firefighters are too macho to wear seat belts. And there is that cultural obstacle to overcome.

SkepMod

Send them all pictures of the crash that killed the two chiefs.

Suggest that every station start a "Seatbelt Avoidance Casualty Fund" that would pay for the dead guy's kids' schooling.

Cap'n Crunch

I wonder if it has to do with what they see everyday. The average person wears a belt, it doesn't hinder them-they may never get in an accident and their lives will likely be saved by wearing a seat belt. But a firefighter sees all of the 1% of people trapped in their vehicles every day in crashes. They're the ones with the jaws of life. Plus, they have to hit the ground running as soon as they arrive on the scene. They probably see the seat belt as a hindrance. You'd have to change the way they see seat belts function in their work.

Lawrence

I don't wish to seem cavalier about the lives of firefighters, but how frequent are accidents involving fire engines, and how severe are they? Ms. Hurlbutt mentions an incident involving an "apparatus rollover"; would the seatbelt have helped in this case?

As a related example, school buses do not have seat belts, because the annual death rate as a result of school bus accidents is already extremely low, and many of them come from very severe accidents, such as a bus going off an embankment. More children are killed each year getting on or off the bus than while actually riding on it. While it is certainly possible that seat belts might make school buses very marginally safer, the money is generally spent making the on/off process safer instead with enhancements like better lighting or swing-out signs and barriers.

Though I have no statistics in front of me, I would suspect that the situation is similar for firefighters; at my local firestation, whenever an engine comes back from a call, one of the firefighters hops off and briefly directs traffic so that the engine can take it's time backing into the bay. Perhaps we can put better lighting around the fire station, and put conspicuity vests and lighted hand signal devices (such as at the airport) in the engines for use during these sorts of maneuvers?

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Ben

I would enact a policy that if a firefighter dies because he wasn't wearing a seatbelt, then his family would get a reduced death benefit. Or if he's injured for the same reason he bears more of the cost of the medical care. I recognize this would be wildly unpopular and thus probably never used, but it's an idea.

Nate C.

We all know that there are two broad options. Tricia can incentivize the firefighters to wear their seatbelts, or she can punish them for not wearing their seatbelts. As in all problems of this sort, some monitoring function is required as well.

Given the inexpensive and user-friendly nature of small cameras, installing cameras or video cameras that shoot intermittently into firetrucks might be a good monitoring technique.

A basic punishment option would be a fine to firefighters who are caught on tape not wearing their seatbelts. This would certainly turn some firefighters into seatbelt wearers, but may come at the cost of goodwill to the program. Additionally, enforcement may be difficult if leadership has the same anti-seatbelt mentality.

An incentive option might give the firefighters some reasonable sum of money for wearing their seatbelts. This would require more funding from another location, but would be easier to "enforce," as leadership would presumably be more willing to hand money out rather than take it away.

Tricia could complicate the incentives by only paying out if more than 60% of firefighters have their seatbelts on at any given time, but this complicates the theory greatly.

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CEA

Lawrence-- many school busses do have seatbelts. The kids don't usually use them, but in my school district (Central NJ) they've been in use for at least 10-15 years. We had bus drivers use them as a punishment--if you didn't behave (as a group), everyone had to wear their seatbelts.

Jillian

Just make them all watch this UK PSA:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-8PBx7isoM

Greg

As a paid on call firefighter, I just have a few observations. My department is a mix of full time / part time in a suburb of a major metro area. We are generally very good about wearing seat belts, often times the driver of the apparatus will do a quick "everyone buckled in?" check before leaving. But even with that, I've at times taken my belt off, or delayed putting it on, as I try to get my airpack on, which is stowed in the seat behind us. It's possible to get it on with the seatbelt, but it's much harder and mistake-prone. And I'm a person that ALWAYS wears my seat belt when driving my personal vehicle. When headed to a fire scene, there is so much emphasis on time and no one wants to be the one slowing down the others because they couldn't get their pack on. I'm not trying to defend the practice, just stating what I've done. Thankfully, one of the times I got called on it from the driver and I haven't done it since.

For those wondering how many accidents a fire apparatus may be involved in, the answer is, actually quite a bit. Depending on the year, usually the # of fatalities on the fire scene is equal to or nearly the same as the # of fatalities that occur while responding to the scene. You have multiple vehicles speeding toward an accident scene, heavy, rollover-prone vehicles, the other drives on the road that may panic or not see even see the sirens, the adrenalin surge of the driver, etc. A lot of increased risk factors.

And finally, just a FYI for Lawrence. Whenever we drive and apparatus backwards, we always have someone hop out of the vehicle to help back them up. This is mostly for the safety of others rather than the vehicle itself, we can't see pedestrians behind us, and there is no guarantee that he/she will hear the back-up alarm or even be able to get out of the way in time. Not so long ago a neighboring city had an fatal accident involving a ambulance with an elderly person as the ambulance was in reverse.

Either way, the seat-belt issue is an interesting problem, I don't really see any silver bullet, other than the slow culture change that is already happening.

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V

As a firefighter, I offer the following comments:

I buckle my seat belt in my personal vehicle all the time. I hardly ever buckle my seat belt when responding to calls.

It is not an act of macho-ism or sheer stupidity, as some of you are portraying it. When it comes down to it, it is an issue of response time. Often times, the call comes, we jump into our boots and bunker pants, and grab our coats and helmet from the rack and hop in the vehicle with the intent of getting the rig rolling as quickly as we can.

While en route to the scene, that is when we get a minute or two to slow down, get all of our gear on and checked, and our plan of attack ready. By that time, we have reached or are close to reaching the scene. If otherwise, the bulk of fire turnout gear makes it difficult for us to reach behind us to buckle a seat belt. Also, if the call requires it, often times we will already have our SCBA packs already strapped on, which are held by a pull release clamp built behind the seat and being strapped into that feels somewhat secure to the firefighter.

That being said, I do agree apparatus rollovers are a hazard we should protect ourselves from, but there needs to be an alternative solution. Perhaps a stronger connection to the SCBA packs that only allow release when the apparatus is parked.

When it boils down to it though, the more urgent task at hand when responding to a call is just that, getting to the scene. Rollover incidents are so few that we choose to prioritize the victim. Besides, all firefighters know that their jobs involve dangerous situations. The key to being a good firefighter is knowing where to draw the line between risk and caution. Seat belts just happen to err too far on the side of caution.

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George

Don't make it about the firefighters. Make it about the people who look up them. Indirectly tell the firefighters to do it for the kids. Maybe an internal memo could promote the role model status firefighters have. Then go into the seatbelt issue and how this could be advertising seatbelt misuse in those who look up to firefighters.

Eric M. Jones

I would be more inclined to believe that the firemans' gear makes the buckling/unbuckling difficult. Also, firemen rarely ride very far to a fire. There are technological solutions to this problem, but then there are other ways to cheat too.

I once heard a patrolman say, "I've been a highway patrolman for nineteen years, and I've never had to unbuckle a dead body."

Worked for me.

PS: Aircraft pilots don't have this problem. The law says you just don't take off if everyone isn't buckled. Period.

Jack

Agree with #3--change the appearance.

Design the restraint system to mimic one in a fighter jet or a formula 1 racer, and have a jet jockey train the firefighters on its use.

I also agree--if they can integrate the restraint into the firefighters' safety gear and have some kind of quick attach/release mechanism.

Roberta Hotinski

Enlist the children firefighters regularly visit in schools in the effort. I understand that kids have been instrumental in getting their parents to buckle up - if they get the idea that firefighters don't wear seatbelts they'll subject them to unending questions about it at every presentation.

F.C.

I'm a volunteer firefighter in Massachusetts, and only on rare occasions have I witnessed fellow fire fighters wearing seat belts. The officers say we must. The state fire academy says we must. But most of us don't. But it's NOT a matter of looking cool. It's a matter of avoiding having the seatbelt get entangled with the rest of our gear. We've already got two sets of straps around us with buckles: our air pack harness and our flashlight. Plus all the other stuff dangling from our turn-out gear, carabiners, rope, clamps. When the engine pulls onto the scene we want to get up and go. Speaking for myself, I don't want to get strung up or delayed trying to get a seatbelt on.

This is not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

Thumperchick

Use roller coaster style over shoulder harnesses. The engine won't start until all of them are locked in - and you can't pre buckle that.

J Martin

No one, on any level, is incorrect to point out that firefighters should use seatbelts; it's just that, when you're back there, you get wrapped up in a lot of things; figuratively and literally.

We're told to Respond Safely, but we're also told to be 100% Prepared when we step out of the vehicle.

"Looking Cool"? This has never crossed my mind.

The process of donning the SCBA (air pack) while seated, (applying and tightening shoulder straps & lumbar strap) over your bunker coat, after grabbing a radio, flashlight does consume your attention.

In some fire apparatus, the seats are in such proximity that two 6 footers will inevitably impede each other's progress while working to assemble all of this gear.

As a result, especially for 'hot' calls, applying the seatbelt does tend to be an afterthought.

Further, in my department's apparatus, the SCBA's cylinder is secured by a bracket that must be disengaged manually via a rope pull mechanism.

The redundancy of the seatbelt and secured SCBA cylinder (rated to 10Gs) absolutely should be utilized, but unleashing yourself is another part of the struggle.

Nonetheless, in the face of all of this, there are still firefighters dying where a seatbelt may have saved them.

In sum: we have no excuses.

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