Amarillo District Fire Chief Michael Campbell was at home on annual leave the morning of Jan. 31 when he heard word of an engine rollover coming from his scanner.
It was his shift involved in the incident, which was part of a 40-plus vehicle highway pileup.
When he heard there was a fatality in the crash, “That really made my hairs stand up,” he said.
All four firefighters inside the engine, however, escaped safety because every one of them was wearing a seat belt. The fatality was that of a civilian involved in the pileup.
“The stupid human factor is always in there usually, so you can’t guarantee” that everyone is wearing their seat belt, Campbell said. When he found out they were and that they were safe, “I said ‘That a boy!’ The officer was doing his job and everyone else followed his lead.”
“We banged up a $300,000 fire truck we can’t fix, but everyone went home.”
This was Amarillo’s first ever known rollover according to Public Information Officer Bob Johnson and its first serious apparatus incident since April 23, 2005. That’s when Firefighter Brian Hunton fell out of a ladder truck while putting on his gear. He wasn’t wearing his seat belt. He died the next day from the injuries he sustained in the crash.
Following Hunton’s death, Firehouse.com contributor Dr. Burton A. Clark pushed forward an effort to change the culture of the fire service and get firefighters to wear their seat belts.
So far, close to 45,000 firefighters have signed Clark’s National Fire Service Seat Belt Pledge.
Amarillo, like many departments, had a seat belt policy for years before the tragedy, but Safety Officer Bruce Tidmore said that it was evident that the policy was not being followed completely.
“After the incident we reinforced that it was not going to be tolerated anymore,” he said. “The policy was changed so that new employees after their one-year probation would be fired on the spot” if in violation.
Tidmore said that the department’s latest incident proves progress has been made.
“When I met with firefighters in the station following the rollover, I told them that I still have the fear that some people are still not following the policy. They all chimed in ‘Not anymore.’ “
Tidmore said that recently an apparatus driver threw out a firefighter from his truck and left him at the station because he couldn’t find his seatbelt.
“It’s sad you had to have someone die because of something like that,” he said. “But maybe in a way Brain died so that no more of us would have to.”