The Technical Committee on Fire Department Apparatus has been working hard over the years to develop requirements for NFPA 1901,Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus, to address the issue of safe transport of fire fighting personnel. These requirements have included such items as seated and belted riding positions for all personnel, fully enclosed crew cabs, colored seat belts to assist the officer with recognizing when a seat belt is in use, and most recently, a requirement for the installation of seat belt warning systems on all new fire apparatus. The requirements for seat belt warning systems, which were incorporated into the 2009 edition of the standard, include the use of an audible warning that can be heard from all seating positions and a visual warning device that can be seen by the driver or the officer.
It has become abundantly clear that fire fighters, just like occupants in passenger vehicles, are much more likely to be injured and/or ejected in the event of crash when they are not properly seated and belted. This has prompted many departments across the country to implement SOP’s and SOG’s that direct fire fighting personnel on the mandatory use of seat belts while the apparatus is in motion. The seat belt warning systems increase safety by providing another tool for the driver or officer to indicate that every occupant is seated and belted prior to putting the apparatus in motion, regardless of if the apparatus is responding to a call or just out on routine traffic. However, it is the responsibility of each and every fire fighter, in addition to the officer and driver, to ensure that the seat belts are being used.
Unfortunately, even the best policies and seat belt warning systems on the market cannot dictate human behavior. Take this situation in Tulsa, OK, where Tulsa FD personnel were involved in a multiple apparatus accident. Upon investigation, it was determined that none of the fire fighters were wearing their seat belts and both apparatus had disabled seat belt warning systems. BOTH APPARATUS!!! These devices were overcome with paper towel products, tape, and foam ear plugs. Luckily, none of the occupants sustained any life threatening injuries during the crash. Disciplinary actions have been handed down to those involved, and the incident prompted the department to inspect other apparatus for evidence of tampering. Policies and seat belt warning systems are nothing more than tools that can assist in keeping fire fighting personnel safe. However, human behavior is a hard nut to crack, and we can often be our own worst enemies. Let this situation act as a warning to you and your department. Even though I should not have to say it, seat belt warning systems should be checked on a regular basis as part of your departments inspection, testing, and maintenance program to ensure that the systems are working as intended.