3 ways to get firefighters to wear seat belts

Despite overwhelming evidence that they work, firefighters still don't use seat belts; this three-step process explains why and offers solutions

It is now almost 2024. Who among us does not know that seat belts save lives?

Children in grade school know to buckle up. All the states except one have laws that require seat belt use, enforceable as either as a primary or secondary offense.

So, why is it that firefighters continue to be killed and injured as a direct result of not being seat-belted in a moving vehicle?

The consistent use of seat belts has been a cultural shift for this country in the past decades, both with the general population and among emergency services. I am old enough to remember cars that were not equipped with seat belts.

When I first joined the fire service, some departments still had a tradition of literally riding the tailboard. But those days are long past.

And if anyone understands the consequences of not using seat belts, it is a firefighter. So again, why do some fire service members still not use their seat belts consistently?

Steps 1 and 2: Motivate firefighter safety change

In their book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” authors Chip and Dan Heath talk about a three-step process to promote behavioral change. This process is specifically directed at making change in situations where we have all the information we need to behave differently, yet we still don’t.

The first step of this process is engaging the rational mind of those affected. Why is the change needed? What are the direct benefits for behaving differently and the clear liabilities of failing to change?

When it comes to seat belt use, the rational case has been made frequently, clearly and over many years. There is not a firefighter in this country, or nearly anywhere in the world, who does not understand that seat belts save lives.

The second aspect of the process addresses motivation – the emotional element of change. For departments that have experienced a death or injury due to a member not being properly belted in, this emotional case is strong.

But these incidents don’t just affect those who happened to know the person who was injured or killed. All firefighters are emotionally affected when another member is injured or killed in the line of duty, no matter what the circumstances.

So there seems to be plenty of internal motivation to do the right thing, yet still people sometimes don’t. Again, why is that?

Step 3: Barriers to change

This leads to the third element of the change process described in the book: shaping the path.

As the authors state, if you want people to behave in a certain way, you need to remove obstacles that might hinder them from making good choices. Change must be as easy as possible.

I would say that this is the area where seat belt compliance might be hitting resistance. Being properly seat belted in a rig is sometimes inconsistent with the other activities firefighters engage in while en route to an emergency scene.

Firefighters put on protective gear, they prepare to don an air pack and they check for tools and gear. Officers are talking on the radio, operating emergency signaling devices, checking maps and directions. Sometimes these activities may be difficult to accomplish when firmly restrained by a three-point seat belt.

These preparatory activities are important. The rig needs to arrive at the correct address and when it gets there, all members need to be ready to go to work. Seconds count in emergency response.

This rationale may allow some members to override their rational awareness that they should be seat belted for the entire time until the rig is safely stopped at the scene. They may want to do the right thing, but justify not doing it as a way of furthering other important goals, such as timely response.

Do these 3 things to improve apparatus seath belt compliance

There may also be an attitude of “it can't happen here” as firefighters tempt fate by riding in rigs unrestrained. Most of the time, there will be no bad outcomes from it.

But when there is a bad outcome, it is really bad. Saving 20 seconds of response time is never worth a firefighter’s life.

So if departments want their members to use seat belts 100 percent of the time, they need to do three things.

  1. Make the expectation of this behavior and the reason for it crystal clear.
  2. Engage members emotionally, talking about real cases where firefighters were injured or killed as a result of noncompliance.
  3. Remove all obstacles for members to always behave in the appropriate manner.

This third point is the critical one. Not only should engine cabs be evaluated for safe and effective use during travel, but clear expectations need to be in place, from the top down, about when firefighters will put on protective gear, don air packs and assemble tools for entry.

The top-down aspect of this part of the process is critical. Firefighters are eager, they want to rush in, they don’t want to take 20 seconds upon arrival at the scene to get all their emergency gear on. They will risk doing it en route in order to be the first off the rig at the scene.

So expectations need to be clear and consistently enforced from one engine or truck company to the next. All members must have not only a rational reason for doing the right thing, but an emotional sense of motivation and purpose. And departments have to make compliance as easy and convenient and acceptable as possible.

Let’s make 2024 the year when firefighter deaths and injuries from lack of seat belt use become a thing of the past.

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This article, originally published in January 2017, has been updated. 

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