Motorcycle Accidents Present Special Challenges

One of the first places to look for the start switch is on the handle bars of a motorcycle.
Finding the start switch can be half the battle in securing motorcycles at the scene of an accident. One of the first places to find them is on the handle bars. (Fire Apparatus Photo)
Some motorcycles have batteries mounted on the side frame.
Some models have batteries mounted on the side frames behind protective and decorative covers. Side batteries can sometimes be more vulnerable to damage during accidents and responders should be watchful of battery acid leaks.
Side cars can present their own challenges.
Side cars and their connections can present their own challenges. Some have drive axles and drive wheels. Remember when working on any three-wheeled motorcycle, that remains upright, to chock the wheels to prevent rolling and unexpected movement. (Fire Apparatus Photo)
The seat sometimes has to be removed to gain access to the battery.
In many instances, the seat will need to be removed to gain access to the battery. Look for bolts under the seat or latches. (Fire Apparatus Photo)
Motorcycle batteries are often under the seats.
Motorcycle batteries are often found under the seats. To secure motorcycles, it’s important to shut off the ignition switch and disconnect the battery.
Most motorcycles have 5-gallon fuel tanks with shut offs between the fuel supply and engine
Most motorcycles have 5-gallon fuel tanks. Some have twin tanks, but all have shut offs between the fuel supply and the engine.
Ignition switches are not always obvious.
Ignition switches are not always obvious. This particular model has one on the left side, behind the cowl.

Every year in Gettysburg, Pa., a cult like following arrives in town for Bike Week. It’s a phenomenon that occurs in other towns around the country, like Sturgis, S.D., Daytona, Fla., and Loudon, N.H., to name a few.

For the fire departments that serve these communities, it means several thousand bikers arriving for a full week of festivities. After this year’s event in July in Gettysburg, I began to think about what our fire department had done to help prepare our responders for incidents dealing specifically with motorcycles.

After searching online and at the National Fire Academy’s Learning Resource Center, I have found that there really isn’t much out there in regards to responses to this type of incident.

Due to the lack of information, I headed off to several local motorcycle shops in search of knowledge.

After several interesting visits, here are some basic thoughts and ideas for dealing with motorcycle-related incidents to help set up a primer on this subject.

Don’t Forget The Riders

Let’s not forget about the riders and their needs from an EMS standpoint. Think about it. When was the last time there was training on helmet removal? Take a look at some of the various helmets and their strap and securing systems. Another thing is to take a look at the types of injuries associated with these types of accidents.

Just as there is specialized knowledge for first responders and EMTs, firefighters need to remember there’s specialized responses for controlling motorcycle accidents.

Let’s take a look at some areas of concern that one needs to deal with on a motorcycle.

There are different styles, types and manufacturers of motorcycles, but for the most part there are some basic similarities. Using this knowledge will help to safely handle these incidents.

There are some basic disentanglement concerns. If there is a need to remove wheels, chain/belt guards, handle bars, highway bars, suspension components or frame components, a good set of sockets and hex wrenches will generally do the trick.

Most of the plastic/fiberglass faring, saddle bags, windshield and accessories can be removed with something as simple as a screwdriver. Some may even be held in place with twist locks or ratchet fasteners which allows for easy release and removal with no tools.

Suspension Parts

Remember to be careful when working around suspension parts, just as responders are cautious around any other vehicle or item with parts under compression in peril of violent release.

Another hazard area is the motor and running gear. Today’s motorcycles are either chain or belt driven. One needs to be careful when working in these areas and around the rear wheel in case of accidental drive system engagement.

Always make sure the motorcycle is shut off and secured to avoid any accidental starts that might cause rescuers, or even the victim, to get caught in moving parts.

Beware of hot leaking fluids or the engine heat. The exhaust systems are particularly hot, as is the engine block and coming into contact with these parts may cause burns.

While on the topic of burns, be mindful of the motorcycle’s exhaust system and take a quick look to see where it runs and make sure it is not in contact with anything that could catch fire.

Shutting Off The Engine

If arriving on a scene involving a motorcycle, and its engine is still running, it’s important to know how to shut it off. Even if it isn’t running, it will still need to be shut off to prevent accidental starting while rescuers and firefighters are working around it.

Manufacturers have different ways of starting and stopping their engines, but they all have fuel shut offs and ignition switches. A kick start bike often has a shut off switch on the handle bar console or uses the fuel shut off to kill the engine.

Another key component to shut down a bike is the ignition switch which can be located in one of several places. Locating the switch is important and should be located as soon as possible to shut the power off. The ignition switch can be a separate switch or one that has an integrated key.

It can be located on the handle bar console, in the center console, on the handle bars, on the console in the gas tank area in the center of the bike, or somewhere along the front or middle of the frame.

Starter Switch

Remember the starter switch may or may not serve as the ignition switch. Make sure to identify the switch and shut the ignition off to secure the motorcycle. The majority of motorcycles have an ignition on light and accessories position light indicating the motorcycle electrical system status.

As for the motorcycle’s fuel system, the average bike carries approximately five gallons of gasoline. The motorcycle can have a single or double fuel tank. Some bikes even have an electric fuel pump on them to ensure a good flow of fuel, while others are gravity fed.

All motorcycles are manufactured with a manual fuel shut off valve between the engine and fuel tank. Normally, these are quarter turn valves.

Make sure to properly shut the fuel off to stop the flow to avoid any leaks, spills or accidental starts.

Electrical Systems

Another thing to be concerned with is the motorcycle’s electrical system. Most new bikes are 12-volt systems, but some older models are six volts.

To neutralize the electrical system, the ignition switch must be turned to off  after it’s located. Then, access must be made to the battery to disconnect the terminals. Depending on the type of motorcycle, the battery can be located in one of several areas.

The first place to look is under the seat. Access can be gained by removing several screws or bolts holding the seat in place, or by releasing special latches.

Batteries may also be located in the open, along the frame or behind a plastic, chrome or other decorative cover. Batteries located on the side of the frame are particularly subject to damage during an accident and may leak when the motorcycle is on its side.

These are some basic items to look for at an incident involving a motorcycle, but every manufacturer has specific designs, products and safety features.

Fuel Supply Shut Off

For example, Harley Davidson has a system that shuts off the electrical system and fuel supply which shuts down the engine when the bike moves too far off center. The operator must go through several steps to reset the system once the bike is righted to get it running again. The popularity of custom-built motorcycles has increased the options even more to a nearly infinite combination of on and off sequences, suspension setup and hazards that can’t even be identified until encountered. So, be careful.

Sidecars present their own hazards. Most have a basic pinned connection arrangement to secure it to the motorcycle, but there are manufacturers who produce a side car with a wheel powered through a drive shaft and differential from the motorcycle’s drive wheel. That means firefighters now have to deal not only with the standard connection setup, but a drive axle as well.

While on the topic of three-wheeled bikes, don’t forget to put chocks under wheels to prevent rolling.

I would highly recommend a trip to the local motorcycle dealer to talk to the service people and let them point out some of the safety features so no to be caught off guard when responding to an accident involving a bike. It would be an excellent winter or bad weather drill.

I’d like to give a special thanks to Battlefield Harley Davidson, Gettysburg, Pa., for its assistance with this article.

On a closing note, I need some help for a future article. As I roam the highways in my jurisdiction and across the country, I have acquired a photo collection of various special vehicles and items being transported on, or driven down, the highway. I have in mind an article about unusual things firefighters might encounter on the highway. For example, how would  you handle an incident with the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile, a military tank, a subway car, or a canal boat. I’m sure you have all seen something on the highway that’s made you go “hmmmmm.”

Looking For Ideas

A few of you may have taken high-resolution photos of those things and I’d like to include them in that future article. Please send your good quality photos and a brief description of what it illustrates to Fire Apparatus at And, to be considered for publication, we’ll need to make sure they’re photos you took. We don’t want photos from the Internet, or from other publications – only originals will be considered.

I can’t promise we’ll publish your photo, but we’d like to see them anyway and we’ll be happy to give you photo credit for the ones we use.

As always stay safe and return to quarters.

Editor’s Note: Allen Baldwin is the manager of operations and incident response for the Pennsylvania Turnpike commission and a volunteer captain with the Gettysburg (Pa.) Fire Department. He has been a firefighter and EMT for over 25 years, once serving as a career fire chief, and is an instructor with the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy and several community colleges.

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