Seat belts are sparsely used among firefighters en route to emergencies due to the inconvenience and difficulty to put them on while in full protective gear, according to fire officials.
But Prince George’s County has become one of the only nationwide jurisdictions placing new emphasis on this aspect of firefighter safety.
The College Park Fire/EMS Station has retrofitted a fire engine and ladder truck with ReadyReach seat belt systems and a second fire engine is in the process of having one added. The safety belt system extends seat belt straps for firefighters to easily put on even when in full fire protective gear and is located outside and above the seat, as opposed to behind it.
The College Park station became the first and only in Prince George’s to have the new seat belt system when it was installed on apparatus last month through a father-son firefighter connection.
Nick Wilbur, 22, has been a live-in volunteer firefighter at the College Park station for the past four-and-a-half years while taking classes at Adelphi-based University of Maryland University College for a degree in fire administration. His father, Mike Wilbur, is a lieutenant with the Fire Department of the City of New York specializing in emergency vehicle operations and apparatus placement. Mike Wilbur created ReadyReach by working with Indiana Mills & Manufacturing Inc., a designer and manufacturer of advanced safety systems.
Through the connection, Mike Wilbur has visited College Park several times and has gotten to know the command staff from leading classes on firetruck operation, leading him to donate the seat belts to the College Park station and have them added to a fire engine and ladder truck last month.
“It’s all about safety,” said College Park Volunteer Fire Chief Bill Corrigan.
Corrigan said each retrofit costs anywhere from $100 to $1,000, but said a lot of fire engine manufacturers will begin installing these advanced seat belts as a standard.
Firefighters have no problem wearing ReadyReach seat belts as they are so easy to get on and off, Corrigan said, adding that the station’s second firetruck is in the process of being retrofitted for them. He said ambulances will not need to be retrofitted, because personnel riding in ambulances and other smaller apparatus are not wearing full firefighter suits.
“It’s always been a challenge, getting the guys in the back in seat belts, seeing how tight it is back there,” he said. “With these new ones, there’s a lot more room to work in them. You can put it on and still remain in your seat.”
Corrigan said he does not know of any collisions at the College Park station in recent years, but said they happen in the industry often.
“Every year, there’s always documented cases of firefighters being killed or injured because of not wearing their seat belts,” he said.
Nick Wilbur said he is excited that his father is doing something to improve the safety of firefighters and especially pleased that the station he works for was able to complete the retrofits.
“He had been noticing that in all the wrecks that were happening firefighters weren’t wearing seat belts so he started working on trying to improve the usability of seat belts,” Nick Wilbur said of his father. “He’s done a great job. He’s worked very hard. I’m happy and all the guys here are happy that he’s been able to do this.”
According to a 2011 U.S. Fire Administration report on firefighter injuries nationally, between 2006 and 2008 there were roughly 4,880 annual firefighter injuries that occurred while traveling in apparatus. There were 81,070 injuries overall, the report says.
Mark Brady, chief spokesman for the county’s fire/EMS department, said there have been no fatalities or serious injuries to Prince George’s firefighters from driving in recent years, but said the seat belt retrofit is an overall proactive means of improving firefighter safety.
Brady said since the retrofitting to the College Park apparatus, the county department has received many requests for more information from other fire departments in other counties and states.
“I believe this demonstrates the interest firefighters have in making the job safer,” Brady said.
Fire officials in Prince George’s now are weighing the possibilities of adding ReadyReach systems to more fire apparatus throughout the county either through retrofitting or through the gradual purchase of new fire engines and trucks, on which ReadyReach seat belts are expected to come pre-installed, Brady said.
Corrigan said the county has ordered an additional seven pieces of apparatus that all will be equipped with ReadyReach seat belts.