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Firetruck Safety Changes Urged by US

Boston Globe via YellowBrix

April 21, 2010

BOSTON – Federal authorities say Massachusetts should enact laws that require firefighters to wear seat belts and be tested on air brake operation before they are allowed to drive firetrucks, according to a new federal report on the investigation of the fatal firetruck crash in Boston last year.

The investigation concluded that a fire lieutenant who was killed and two firefighters who were injured were not wearing seat belts when the ladder truck they were riding in lost brake pressure, careered down a steep hill, and crashed into an apartment building, according to the report by the Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The driver was also not adequately trained on how air brakes work.

Massachusetts law currently exempts “operators and passengers of fire vehicles from having to wear a seat belt,’’ the report said, and the Boston Fire Department has no regulations for buckling up.

“Due to the severity of the fatal incident, a seat belt may not have saved the victim, but it is recommended as a good safety practice,’’ the report says.

Law requires drivers to pass extensive testing on air brakes and other mechanical functions on large trucks to obtain commercial driver’s licenses, but firefighters are exempt because firetrucks are not considered commercial vehicles.

The institute’s investigators said that the law should be modified to ensure that firetruck drivers have proper “knowledge and skill of air brake systems.’’

The federal investigation cited four key factors that led to the crash in Boston and ultimately the fatality: brake failure, poor maintenance, inadequate training, and failure to wear seat belts. Lieutenant Kevin M. Kelley was killed, and three other firefighters riding in the truck were injured in the crash on Jan. 9, 2009.

The state fire marshal applauded the investigation’s conclusions yesterday and said he would consider introducing legislation in light of the findings.

“It is an opportunity for all of us in the fire service to study the recommendations and look to those that should be implemented to improve the safety of our firefighters and the public,’’ Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said.

The president of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts said he also supports the seat belt requirement but does not feel it should be legislated.

“I think it’s sad that we need to mandate safety,’’ said Ware Fire Chief Thomas Coulombe, who said he believes individual departments should institute regulations requiring seat belts.

Coulombe, who said he already requires his firefighters to use seat belts, said he plans to survey departments across the state in coming weeks to determine how many lack the requirement and what should be done.

In Boston, Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser has not instituted seat belt rules, despite the fatal crash and an internal department investigation of the crash. It concluded last month that belts may have lessened the injuries suffered by surviving firefighters.

A spokesman for Fraser said yesterday that the department is considering whether it will require firefighters to buckle up.

“It’s not mandatory right now, but it’s something they’re looking at,’’ spokesman Steve MacDonald said.

The department has instituted an extensive driver training program since the crash, including lessons on checking air brakes.

The federal investigation was one of three since Kelley’s death. The others, the internal review at the Fire Department and another by the Boston police and Suffolk district attorney, reached many of the same conclusions. All found that brake failure brought on by poor truck maintenance was the primary cause.

They also found that poor driver training meant that the firefighter behind the wheel that day did not know how to stop the truck once its brakes failed.