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Time to Belt Up!: A pledge to protect our own lives

In April 2005,„Amarillo (Texas) Fire Department firefighter Christopher Hunton died from injuries sustained on duty. He was only 27 years old, with just one year on the job, and he had many years ahead of him. The incident wasn't a fire, and it wasn't a collision. It was more simple, and more tragic. Hunton wasn't wearing a seatbelt while responding to an alarm, and he fell out of the fire truck and died two days later.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time a firefighter has fallen out of an apparatus, and it probably won't be the last. But the fire service realized that we„can do something about these preventable deaths and started a campaign called the National Seatbelt Pledge. By signing the pledge, firefighters promise to wear a seatbelt whenever they're riding in a fire department vehicle -- or any moving vehicle.

The pledge I signed this past summer states the following: ˙I, Chief Gary Ludwig, pledge to wear my seatbelt whenever I am riding in Fire Department vehicles or any moving vehicle. I further pledge to ensure all firefighters riding with me wear their seatbelts.Ó

Although I already wore my seatbelt in moving vehicles, I started to encourage seatbelt use among others after signing the pledge. And I began to think,„How many„EMS professionals are killed or injured each year because they weren't wearing their seatbelts? The research I did surprised me, but it didn't shock me.

In 2003, a study was conducted among EMTs when they submitted their biennial re-registration paperwork to the National Registry of EMTs (NREMT). As part of the study, the EMTs were asked to fill out a survey related to health and safety risks encountered by„EMS professionals. Survey participants were asked to describe their seatbelt use in the front seat of an ambulance. A respondent's compliance was classified as ˙highÓ in seatbelt use if they had always worn their seatbelt for more than a year or classified as ˙lowÓ if they hadn't worn their seatbelt at least once within the past year.

A total of 29,575 EMTs returned the survey. Researchers found that seatbelt usage among EMTs appears to correspond with the type of„EMS organization to which they belong. EMTs in the military were the most compliant, with about 80% usage, whereas only about 41% of EMTs working for private organizations used their seatbelts. Low seatbelt usage was also recorded among those working in rural areas.

Another study conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) looked at crash data from 1991Ï2002. The 300 fatal ambulance crashes during that period involved 816 ambulance occupants, 82 of whom died. (Other deaths occurred in vehicles that collided with the ambulance.) Of the 82 deaths, 27 were„EMS professionals. Of the 27„EMS deaths, seven (26%) were drivers who weren't wearing seatbelts, two (7%) were unbelted occupants on the passenger side and six (22%) were unrestrained providers in the patient compartment.

There's no denying that the demands of modern„EMS have brought about the challenge for EMTs and paramedics to remain belted. But what excuse is there for those riding in the front of the ambulance? None. Even those working in the rear patient compartment should be belted when the vehicle is in motion. This is especially true for long, non-emergency interfacility transports, when little or no intensive care is required.

During an ambulance collision, an unrestrained provider in the patient compartment essentially becomes a missile flying through the air at the same speed as the ambulance when it crashes. Providers usually end up smashing against the bulkhead and sustaining some type of head trauma.

Information from the EMS National Memorial Service makes the point clear: The majority of„EMS personnel who die in the line of duty are killed in ambulance crashes. If this is our highest risk, we must focus on how to minimize that risk, including improved safety measures and practices. If we could attain 100% seatbelt usage among all„EMS providers, our annual death toll would drop significantly. But this isn't going to happen unless„EMS leaders and managers ensure their providers are wearing their seatbelts, and part of that comes from making their employees sign a seatbelt pledge.

Think about the EMTs and paramedics on your front line. The only true method of protecting them and allowing them to live long, healthy and productive lives is getting them into the habit of being restrained in a moving vehicle. Making them sign the seatbelt pledge is a good start. Download the pledge form (which is being updated to include„EMS) at„www.trainingdivision.com/seatbeltpledge.asp.

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