Dangers of Unbelted Driving

Riding unsecured on a moving apparatus is risky behavior that has life-altering consequences. Forces generated by speeds of just 5 mph are strong enough to break the grip of an adult and result in serious injury. Failing to be seated and seatbelted is reckless behavior that can result in a near miss, injury or death. Families are left wondering, “Why was my loved one not belted? Who was in charge and allowed that to happen?” Who among us has prepared themselves to stand in front of a bereaved family and tell them that their loved one was seriously injured or killed while riding unbelted on a rig and it was “just part of the job”? Chief Alan Brunacini said, “It’s not OK to die in a structure fire.” To carry that theme one step further, I contend that it’s also not OK to fall or be ejected from a moving rig.

The following Near-Miss report excerpt starts out with all the simplicity of any number of events that preface an unanticipated outcome, and ends with a preventable lost-time injury.
Report #13-298 Excerpt
“While returning from the hospital, we stopped at the local elementary school where the fuel pumps were located in order to refuel the medic unit. It had been raining throughout the afternoon. The school grounds were locked by two yellow gates. I got out of the ambulance and unlocked the gate. Once the gate was cleared to make room for the ambulance to get through, I hopped on the running board instead of getting back into the vehicle. We then proceeded at approximately 5 mph the short distance to the fuel pumps. There was a slight turn that needed to be made toward the pump. The mirror that I had been holding onto was a breakaway-style mirror. As the turn was made, the mirror began to break away, and the door began to open, at which point I was thrown from the vehicle, striking the back of my head. I had to be transported to the hospital for injuries sustained in the accident.”

Quantifiable Measures
There are quantifiable measures that will determine the forces required to eject a person from a moving vehicle. Newton’s Second Law of Motion states that the force exerted by an object on another object is equal to the mass of an object times its acceleration. Applying this law to the Near-Miss excerpt, and plugging numbers into Newton’s equation (force = mass x acceleration), we can get a general sense of the energy created by the fall.

Let’s assume the medic in the report is a male who weighs 191 lbs. (average weight for a 21st century male). The vehicle he is hanging onto is moving at approximately 5 mph. Although we don’t know how fast he accelerated as the mirror broke away, the simple math says 955 lbs. of force was created (191 lbs. x 5 mph) when he hit the street. Although the numbers vary in the literature, several sources indicate that a force of just 500 lbs. is required to fracture a human skull. Our outrider hits the street at nearly twice that force.

Preparation & Prevention
There are a number of important takeaways from this report. First, even low speeds (like driving at 5 mph for 500 feet) are still sufficient enough to cause irreparable harm to the human body. Second, the forces of physics easily overcome the strength of a human. Third, riding unsecured is a non-negotiable item. Lastly, allowing a co-worker to needlessly place themselves in harm’s way is unacceptable.  
Maybe it’s time to think outside the cab for just a minute. Consider the acronym IDLH. OSHA created the phrase “immediately dangerous to life or health” (IDLH) to describe an environment that is unsuitable for human occupation without the use of a respirator. How far of a reach is it to modify the definition to say that a moving piece of fire or EMS apparatus is also a form of an IDLH hazard?

Firefighters, EMS workers and law enforcement officers are no strangers to the results of humans who jumped into their own personal “IDLH” environments, failed to take proper precautions and ended up with one-way tickets in life. Yet somehow, we walk away from accident and mishap scenes thinking that our physiology is not subject to the same forces of nature that snuffed out a life on impact in as little at 7/10 of one second.

Let’s sum this up: Wear your seatbelt. Don’t ride on the outside of a moving vehicle. Don’t move, or allow someone else to move a vehicle where everyone is not properly secured. Protect yourself by wearing appropriate levels of PPE. If you are more than 6 feet off the ground, wear your helmet. Insist that personnel under your command adhere to safe practices regarding moving vehicle operations.

Final Thoughts
There are powerful testimonies in several of the videos provided in the “Related Media” sidebar. Watch them with your partner and/or your crew. The firefighters and family members are not actors; they are (or were) regular firefighters just like you. When they reported to work or responded to the call on the day their lives changed, they weren’t thinking about getting ejected or falling off the rig. If they had, they would have buckled up and changed their personal history.

Bottom line: There are any number of places where we can take action to prevent, not just reduce, injuries. Securing ourselves and ensuring that everyone else riding with us is belted and secured is a no-brainer. Be safe.

Related Media
Raleigh Fire Department tiller rollover; officer ejected through windshield
Chicago Fire Department “Everybody Goes Home” video produced in conjunction with the NFFF. Video recounts several LODDs that involve firefighters ejected from apparatus
Statter911 PSA advocating seatbelt use; interview with Chief Tom Carr
NFFF PSA advocating seatbelt use
“It’s More Than Just Seat Belts” video by Everyone Goes Home video (Illinois)

NIOSH LODD report; firefighter falls from moving vehicle
News feed; firefighter falls from apparatus
LODD: Firefighter falls from apparatus
LODD: Firefighter falls from apparatus, struck by car
Firefighter injured in fall from moving apparatus
Tanker rolls, driver spared because he was wearing seatbelt
Tailboard Training document from VFIS

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