The automobile has come a long way since it was first manufactured on the assembly line pioneered by Henry Ford. It was a very basic machine and had relatively few parts.
There were no options, and even the color, black, was the only one available. In fact, Henry Ford is credited with the statement that buyers could have any color they wanted, as long as they chose black! Today, vehicles have many options and are regulated by the government to provide better mileage as well as safety components. Both have an effect on extrication should there be a crash, requiring extra effort.
Early autos ran on gasoline. Now there are vehicles that use diesel fuel, battery power, natural gas, and gas/battery hybrids. There are also cars being developed that operate on hydrogen gas. Each of these can present a challenge to firefighters and create varying obstacles during extrication operations. Just this aspect of automobiles presents more information that firefighters must know to be successful and safe with their operations. Fortunately, there are many resources available to fire departments, and access through the Internet allows each organization to gain the information it needs. What are not provided are the time and plans to use this information in a quality training program. Those are left up to departments to figure out.
The fuel a vehicle uses will affect responders’ decision-making processes. Generally speaking, there needs to be an initial assessment to determine if the fuel type will affect the operation and safety. In most cases, if the vehicle is powered by a liquid or gas and there is no leak, then extrication can proceed without immediate concern. Responders should constantly monitor and note any changes in conditions. If the vehicle is powered by electricity, there should be more consideration so that responders note any potential electrical issues that could cause harm to responders and the victims in the vehicle. Regarding this, organizations and their personnel should routinely review the challenges presented by electric and hybrid vehicles during extrication. These vehicles are not large in number compared to gasoline engines, so the frequency of events is low. This makes training more important than ever.
Automobile makers have added many safety features that have improved the survivability rate and lowered the injury rate of those involved in crashes. This is good but challenges the fire service to be even more competent in its skill level for extrication. To have a positive outcome, minimal extrication time is necessary so the injured can receive treatment as quickly as possible. Anything that contributes to a delay must be addressed to provide the best possible service. Vehicle construction knowledge is essential, and continual changes in the industry present new and unique challenges.
Vehicles have built-in safety features designed to restrain passengers and also keep the vehicle from collapsing, caving, or basically falling apart. The vehicles are constructed with better materials. The steel used is high strength, making cutting the steel more difficult. There must be better tools to address this and also better knowledge on the part of the firefighters so they know when they are likely to encounter these circumstances. They also need to explore training opportunities with cars of this vintage or at least consider practicing with scrap metal so they appreciate what they likely will face.
If you talk to any responder who has been in the business for any length of time, he will probably tell you that in many of today’s crashes the occupants fare much better. To them, the safety measures are working. Rollover accidents on the interstate almost always meant a severe injury or worse. Today, responders often will find the occupants walking around the site (usually talking on their cell phones) with no apparent injury. This perspective cannot lead to complacency in response preparation. Those who do require extrication must get the best possible response, and firefighters need knowledge of the cars and training. Vehicle restraints could lead to injuries if firefighters do not understand and respect them. An accidental discharge of an air bag will injure anyone in the way. While most serious accidents will result in air bag deployment prior to firefighter arrival, firefighters should know where to find them in vehicles and how to make sure they are disabled so an accident during extrication does not occur.
Firefighters may not have as many opportunities to gain experience or hone skills, so it is more imperative that they prepare with the right tools and training. If you have access to late-model cars, you need to take advantage of that opportunity. Newer vehicles will provide opportunities for you to train and learn about the challenges you will likely face. While you can study and learn from a variety of sources, in most cases nothing replaces actual hands-on opportunities. Depending on the resources in your area, you may have more chances to explore. This can include vehicle manufacturers, suppliers, or salvage yards that have access to more than older vehicles. For those without these resources nearby, be on the lookout for regional or national opportunities. This could include some of the bigger conferences like FDIC International as well as regional and state workshops and seminars.
Next to actual hands-on classes and practices, study and simulation offer the next best chances to learn what needs to be learned. The Internet has much information posted by vehicle manufacturers regarding safety features that can affect first responders. As this information can change rapidly because of advances in the industry, organizations must be vigilant in their pursuit of information. Almost all of the fire journals have regular columns on extrication by recognized experts in the field. There is much to learn. I would also suggest that you follow up with many of these authors for additional information. They are more than happy to help in any way they can. If you want to take it a step further, many are available for on-site training. If your department cannot afford something like this on its own, consider partnering with other organizations in your area.
To be good at one’s profession, there must be continual improvement along with constant education. This is a big challenge in an industry like firefighting, as the rate of change in the hazards that may be faced is extremely fast. More than any time since firefighting began, the world is presenting rapidly evolving products that offer new and different challenges that will require even more first responder knowledge. If organizations want to be as good as they possibly can, and everyone should have this desire, then they must pay attention to the environment around them and prepare for what can be expected and what may be new developments that require new approaches. Those who aspire to be at the highest level of professionalism are always on top of the emerging issues as well as those that remain. There is no resting on past accomplishments or laurels. As one of my early bosses once told me, “Don’t take too much stock in your press clippings. They are outdated by the time they are printed.”
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.