New vehicle technology (NVT) not only presents major challenges to rescue tools and equipment, but it has also changed our methods and tactics for extrications and patient care. With this in mind, isn't it time to update our extrication training to reflect how we need to effect vehicle rescues from today's ultra-tough new cars?
Hard to Acquire
When we talk NVT, gone are the days of taking the shift or platoon to the local junkyard for extrication training. And even if NVT cars were available at local junkyards, it is cost-prohibitive for junkyard owners to allow firefighters to tear up new vehicles in today's economy. Older non-NVT cars are becoming harder to acquire and train with in many states.
As training officers or chief officers, we have to ask ourselves a couple of questions about updating extrication training: What do our firefighters need to be updated on, and what information do we need from an extrication class that we don't presently have or currently offer?
Auto extrication programs are typically broken into three types: basic, advanced, and specialty [or awareness, operations, and technician levels per the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)]. The entry-level, basic course covers the fundamentals of vehicle construction, the anatomy and physiology of safety systems, basic stabilization, and the tools and tactics used in passenger car extrication. Advanced classes generally delve into more complicated techniques for stabilization and extrication used in vehicle rescues. Specialty classes usually focus on more complex extrications involving large vehicles such as school buses, aircraft, public transportation vehicles, and big rigs, to name a few.
A new breed of extrication training programs has emerged in the past couple of years, commonly known as new vehicle technology programs.
With the undeniable emergence of NVT permeating all types of vehicles, training officers have much more to think about when considering or developing an effective extrication training program.
NVT Extrication Challenges
NVT poses the most significant extrication challenges fire departments face today. Initially, we were made to believe we should avoid, dodge, work around, or otherwise turn a blind eye to NVT for reasons such as, "We don't see those types of cars come into our area." This mindset has changed because NVT is present in almost all makes and models of vehicles today and, more importantly, those of tomorrow. This technology was originally found only in higher-end luxury vehicles such as those from Volvo and Mercedes Benz only a couple of years ago, but it is now found in most passenger vehicles and light trucks, as well as public transportation such as commuter trains.
NVT is not a singular or one-sided issue. It has created and continues to create complex challenges as it spans numerous aspects of vehicle construction. One of these challenges is understanding the new and not-so-new metals that are used, how they are prepared and put together, their locations within vehicles, and much more. A better understanding of this metallurgy can prepare firefighters to do a more thorough, faster, and safer job on the scene.
We have all heard about "exotic" metals being used in today's new cars. While the term exotic is a bit of a misnomer (these metals aren't exotic, they are simply new to the auto industry), we use this term because it is the industry-accepted description. Basically, manufacturers are employing lighter and stronger materials such as boron, magnesium, titanium, and martensite, as opposed to plain mild steel used in the past, to meet consumer demand and industry requirements for passenger safety and fuel economy. Hydroform technology, for example, takes these metals and strategically bends and forms them in a way that makes them even stronger and tougher to deal with during extrication operations.
In the decades after the 1970s, styling and features changed, but the basic framework and construction of automobiles were fairly consistent. Structural components were made of heavy but strong mild steel. This steel was easy to use and relatively inexpensive to produce. Most rescue tools manufactured during those decades worked in a similar way and were able to get the job done on the vehicle technology of that era.
With today's push for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars and the introduction of the five-star crash ratings and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) top safety picks to promote safer cars, the old design approach to car making had to be challenged and reinvented. So, too, must the approach to auto extrication training and rescue tools be reinvented to keep up with new vehicle technology. Fire departments around this country and the world are learning the hard way that their present mindsets and toolsets are not capable of handling the challenges NVT presents.
Not only are these new vehicles presenting rescue and safety challenges to us, but our own rescue tools are being asked to operate beyond their limits. Unfortunately, the result of asking more of our tools than they are capable of is an alarming increase in the number of catastrophic tool failures, the resultant firefighter injuries, and near misses. When we add in the dynamic of shrinking crew size in many areas of the country, firefighter fatigue is of greater concern than ever before.
NVT has infiltrated all aspects of today's vehicles and has created the need for awareness- and operations-level training modules to be incorporated into all levels of auto extrication training programs. It is also an important consideration in choosing a training program. We are expected to stay ahead of the extrication technology curve, but our opportunities to do so are becoming fewer and farther between.
Picking Your Program
As with many fire service training programs, there are some general requisite considerations when evaluating an auto extrication training program:
• Do the instructors for the program you are considering have real-life experience in the subject they are teaching? Are they certified to teach firefighters? What special training or experience do they have that qualifies them to teach this program? Are they now or have they been firefighters themselves? Can they offer you references from other departments at which they have taught?
• Is this program something new and relevant? Did the instructors develop the program being taught, or are they teaching an existing program? If it is an existing program, why should your department take the class from them?
• Will the program meet your department's specific needs? Are the program and the instructors flexible and dynamic enough to change to meet those needs? "Cookie-cutter" programs often leave participants feeling that their training needs weren't addressed.
• What is the cost? How can your department best afford to get as many of its staff through the training? Does the program offer multiple-day discounts to accommodate paid shifts and volunteer firefighters? Does your department have to travel to the training, or will the training program travel? What is the cost differential? Can your department host a program to defer some cost? Is the cost of the program worth the benefit to your department?
There are also a few specific things to look for and look out for when choosing an auto extrication training program:
• Beware of experts. NVT is just that-new and dynamic. For the sake of professionalism, I will leave this topic here.
• Make sure the program is up to date. In the ever-changing world of auto extrication and NVT, outdated teaching techniques serve little purpose if they can't be used on all types and ages of vehicles. Beware of fluff courses. As firefighters and fire officers, we should train to the most difficult scenarios whenever possible. We don't work in fluff; we shouldn't train in it either.
• Unless the program you are looking for is an awareness-level program, make sure the hands-on training portion of the class is relevant. For example, if a class is offered on Smart cars or hybrid cars, make sure that the class offers hands-on evolutions with actual Smart or hybrid cars. Looking at a printed handout or a PowerPoint® slide is much different than being able to tactically experience an actual vehicle.
• If actual cars are used, make sure students will have access to the part or system of the car the class covers. If the class is on electric or hybrid cars, make sure the demo cars offer students access to everything in the vehicle they might encounter in a real extrication.
• When looking for an NVT hands-on extrication program, make sure it offers new vehicles to train on. It is very difficult to teach an NVT program on old cars. New techniques can certainly be taught on old cars. However, the reaction, or lack thereof, of the metals and components of old cars is drastically different than what is used on today's vehicles. Remember that we know what our current rescue tools can do on old cars, but we will only know what they can and can't do on new cars by using them on new cars. A multi-victim wreck on the highway or freeway is not the place to find out what the tools are capable of. It is also impossible to understand what challenges NVT poses from a PowerPoint, video, or printed material. Programs offering the aforementioned new vehicles will most likely be more expensive to attend because of the cost of acquiring and transporting new vehicles for these classes.
Playing Catch Up
As you can see, and are most likely already aware of, the simple task of choosing an auto extrication program is not as simple as it once was. Current advancements in NVT coupled with those promised in the cars of tomorrow mean we have a lot of catching up to do-with seemingly very few dollars in our budgets. The good news is that there are programs that offer quality updated training and, slowly but surely, the rescue tool industry is catching up with technology to deal with the harder metals that rescue tools are asked to tackle.
A healthy balance of quality, dynamic instructors; up-to-date, accurate curriculum; and state-of-the-art tools, equipment, and vehicles to train on is the key to success for any really good auto extrication training program.
CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He serves as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.