In recent years the line of duty death rate has dropped below 100 firefighters per year and has stayed there and this is very good news.  However the second leading cause of firefighter deaths after heart attacks and stress are firefighters dying in motor vehicle accidents responding to and returning from alarms.  Many of those firefighters were not wearing seatbelts.  No one can dispute the fact that seatbelts that are worn during accidents save lives in all vehicles including fire apparatus and ambulances worn as a driver or a passenger.

            In Wyoming this summer a U.S. Forest Service Type 3 Engine was involved in a rollover accident (Photo #1).  The Engine was a Navistar IH 7400, 4X4, with a four door cab.  The three person crew was responding to a wildland call and just a few miles from their firehouse the apparatus went off the road and rolled over at least 5 times according to witnesses.  All of the crew were seated and belted. They managed to escape through the driver’s side door. All suffered some injuries but they all survived and are doing OK.  The apparatus was totally destroyed.  Had they not been belted in they probably would have been thrown from the vehicle and hurt if not killed.  Another seatbelt success story.

            However as has recently been reported and from my own firsthand knowledge firefighters are now disconnecting seatbelt alarm systems.  This is both an alarming and disturbing trend.  A friend of mine runs a big city Fire Department shop in the south.  He had to fix the same fire trucks seatbelt alarm systems wiring three times.  Firefighters had cut the seatbelt sensors wiring.

            More recently in California firefighters in an engine crashed into a tree and were not wearing seatbelts that included a fire captain that crash through the window.  When investigators got a closer look at the engine, they also found the seat belt sensors and buzzer, which alerts firefighters when someone is not buckled in, had been disconnected and covered over with duct tape.  Only minor injuries were reported in that crash. The firefighters were responding lights and sirens when they hit the tree so hard it cleared the top 15 feet off of the tree and caused nearly $250,000.00 in damage to the truck.  Within a month the fire department found 8 more fire trucks with disconnected sensors and covered alarms to muffle the sound.  Investigators found that several of the firefighters on board the apparatus were not wearing seatbelts and that the driver was found to have made an unsafe turn while traveling at an unsafe speed.  Memos were sent out ordering firefighters not to alter the vehicles and maintenance crews have shrink-wrapped the wiring to prevent them from being tampered with.

            In September two Tulsa Oklahoma engine companies collided while responding to a call. Four of the eight firefighters and officers on board the trucks were not wearing seatbelts.  A Captain and Engineer involved in the crash have been demoted by the chief and three others involved have had discipline letters added to their files.  Accident investigators soon found that not only were the seatbelt alarms disabled but one of the on-board cameras were pointed to the ground.  This was a big news story in Tulsa which caused the investigation to center around the entire Tulsa Fire Department Fleet.  It was reported in a wider investigation that most of the fleet had the seatbelt sensors systems disable and that a majority of firefighters were not wearing seatbelts.  The fire chief sent a stern memo stating that tampering with the fire apparatus safety equipment will not be tolerated and that further action will be taken against those that try and a seatbelt reminder is sent with each dispatch.  I have never met the Chief of the Tulsa Fire Department but I like him, a no nonsense kind of guy that takes the safety of Fire Department members very seriously and takes decisive action when necessary.

            A question always lingers after events like these what situation in the fire service could exist that would cause a firefighter to be fired?  A point to ponder!

            In a court decision just release the court upheld the New York City Fire Commissioners ability to fire immediately EMT’s and Paramedics who refuse or fail a drug test.  The Appellate Division in Manhattan ruled the city charter allows the Fire Department to enforce a zero tolerance rule against illegal drug use by paramedics and EMT’s without regard for any job protections in their union contract.

            Finally in a what were they thinking moment the person or people responsible for the criminal investigation into the firefighter driving the crash truck that responded to the crash of the Asiana Airliner at the San Francisco International Airport that accidentally struck and killed a crash survivor was shameful.  As if the first responders that day were not traumatized enough we have people driving desks in a county office building second guessing firefighters driving the biggest of fire apparatus to a horrific plane crash with many victims and a fire. In a recent new release no charges are going to be filed in the case, but it should have never been allowed to get that far and boarders on an abuse of power.  How many great fire apparatus operators are following this story and may now choose not to drive or are at least second guessing their decision to drive?


Firehouse Magazine January 2014

Emergency Vehicle Operations

By Michael Wilbur