Custom Vehicles Present Unique Rescue Challenges

Along with the heat of the summer and all of its fun comes the favorite time of year for cruising and car shows.

We may not run a lot of incidents with vehicles that are lowered, chopped, raised or just plain unique, but they are out there. Summertime brings out everything from hot rods, classic cars, monster trucks and the Weiner mobile.

Each class of specialty vehicle has its own unique setups and needs. It’s important to consider how prepared our departments are to handle incidents involving these kinds of vehicles.

A Mix Of Old And New

Street rods and hot rods have several unique traits and considerations for responders. The first is the structure of the vehicle. These vehicles can use either original frames or new manufactured frames. The bodies can be a mix of steel, aluminum and fiberglass, all of which can require various extrication techniques.

When is the last time you and your department considered the techniques necessary for cutting into a vehicle with a fiberglass body for extrication and other emergency operations? The reciprocating saw, or a cut-off saw, would be good tools of choice.

Also quick identification of these vehicles and their body composition is important, especially when looking at cribbing and stabilization points. Some of these vehicles can be a mix of old and new parts along with the fiberglass body parts. That’s why it’s important to be sure we do a good size-up.


As for stabilization, a lot of these vehicles have been lowered, and our normal step chocks will most likely not work. It might be necessary to use wedges or make step chocks by placing some smaller cribbing under the vehicle and raising it up on the open end with another small piece of cribbing to make the lift and contact.

When cribbing and stabilizing these vehicles we also need to watch the suspension components, exhaust systems, running gear and engine components as they are exposed a lot of times and very close to the ground. That’s why it’s important to make sure you are cribbing on a good solid surface. With these vehicles, it is important to crib them in place and not drop the vehicle onto the cribbing by deflating the tires. That way you can be sure the vehicle is stable and not resting on something that will break off while working on it.

When using air bags on a street rod, or nearly any vehicle for that matter, be careful of exhaust parts that might be hot as the extreme temperature can damage the bags.

Often these vehicles have no roofs and no roll bars, which can present obvious challenges in a rollover accident and present unique stabilization challenges should one of these rigs come to rest upside-down.

Fuel cells are another item as they can be completely customized and unique and be in uncommon areas. They are most often located under the vehicle or in the trunk area. Fills for the cells may be located on the tank with no remote fills, or they may have elaborate and hidden fills.

Battery locations can be challenging too, and there are no books or reference guides to direct emergency personnel. Each one is custom to the builder’s and owner’s design and the vehicle needs. They can be located under the back seat in the passenger compartment or in the trunk or in the engine compartment or just about anywhere between the four wheels. Most custom vehicles are equipped with a master battery cut-off switch, which is usually a quarter-turn switch located on the dash or near the battery. It’s critical to locate the switch and turn it off when working with these vehicles. Street rods and hot rods are often a blend of old and new technology with unexpected features, such as occupant air bags in a 1923 Ford Model T or airbags in the suspension of a ’57 Chevy for a low rider.

Patient access can be an issue with these rods and their closeness to the ground. A hallmark of many street rods is chopped and lowered roofs. If you’re a big boy like me – 6-foot 3-inches and 240 pounds – you’re not fitting in the passenger compartment. More importantly, you’ll likely find yourself working on your knees, which we know is bad for extrications because it might delay us from getting out of the way fast if something happens. We also might find ourselves kneeling in something we shouldn’t be – glass, gasoline, hydraulic fluid or even bodily fluids.

The key things to keep in mind are these vehicles are highly customized and you have to be prepared for all kinds of surprises in unusual spots. Don’t assume anything is where you think it should be. Being unique and different is the whole idea of having a street rod or hot rod.

Another favorite vehicle genre, especially among the boys and girls in the fire department, is the monster truck. Like street and hot rods, they present unique challenges too – stabilization being the biggest one.

Think about it. How would you stabilize something that’s two to five feet (or more) off the ground for an extrication? You might have to use box cribbing, rescue struts, high lift jacks and air bags to achieve stabilization as step chocks aren’t going to do the job.

These vehicles will also have suspension components hanging down which will make cribbing difficult, and you will have to be careful as you may be limited where you can place the cribbing. Keep in mind that, just like the low riders and hot rods, these vehicles sometimes have air bags as part of their suspension systems that can cause problems if damaged.

Step Ladder Needed

The tires on these vehicles weigh a lot and can be cumbersome to work around if the vehicle is rolled over. And if the vehicle is not rolled over, patient access is going to be a problem.

For some vehicles you will need a step ladder, literally, to access patients for assessment. Then you’ve got the challenge of how to get them from the vehicle safely. There’s the challenge of extrication as well. You’ll probably need something to stand on just to do a simple door pop.

Working under the dash to remove pedals and the steering wheel will require someone to hold the tools for long period of times, potentially at shoulder level or better. You’ll definitely want a small step ladder and/or plenty of cribbing to build a solid box crib to stand on.

Lighting Important

When working at night on any of these vehicles – street rods, hot rods or monster trucks – lighting is of the utmost most importance to ensure safety and operations. You need to keep your eyes open and be prepared for the unexpected and certainly the unusual.

Take time to get out to some of the car and truck shows and look around and see how you would handle emergencies with these vehicles.

Stabilization, fuel and power shutoff, along with patient access and disentanglement, are key things to look at. We may not encounter these specialty vehicles often, but to be sure it will be like nothing you’ve dealt with before. That’s why a little knowledge can help.

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 assistant chief with the Gettysburg (Pa.) Fire Department. He has been a firefighter and EMT for over 25 years, served as chief of the Chambersburg (Pa.) Fire Department and is an instructor with the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy and several community colleges.

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