When firefighters get a call for a serious automobile accident, they rush to the scene to wrestle with steel and glass while fighting against time, hoping to send victims to a hospital within 60 minutes of the time of the crash.
That small window of time firefighters call the “golden hour” hasn’t changed in years, but the work involved in extricating victims of smashed vehicles changes all the time, firefighters say.
Fire officials in Albany and Rotterdam are contending with the need for more foam used to put out fires fueled by ethanol that’s growing in use locally. But the fuel used in vehicles today is only one innovation that requires constant education for first responders.
New and improved air bags, superstrong metals, higher-voltages and batteries located in different places in vehicles are among changes that make cars safer, but at the same time complicate the
task of removing passengers when crashes occur, firefighters said.
Teams of firefighters from the Amsterdam Fire Department spent hours during the past two weeks training both in a classroom and in a vehicle graveyard to tune up their skills, which can help save not only the lives of victims, but also their own.
“Obviously, the longer it takes for the extrication, the less time you have [to get somebody to the hospital],” said Jim Santee, a fire protection specialist at the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control.
Santee said there are an estimated 9 million automobile accidents in the United States every year that cause approximately 43,000 deaths, or four each day.
Santee, who coordinates training exercises, said years ago firefighters could arrive at a crash scene, pull out some hydraulic jaws and rip the car apart to release a victim.
But car manufacturers are adding new features to cars like side air bags, extra wiring and additional power sources that supply more voltage — and ultimately more danger that firefighters have to avoid, Santee said.
For example, older cars employ a standard 12-volt electrical system. But hybrids can pack voltage as high as 457 volts, Santee said, so firefighters working on hybrids have to inspect the area they want to tear into to avoid electrocution.
“Now, you’ve got to pop trim and see what you’re cutting,” Santee said.
Training programs put on by the state and by insurance companies help firefighters keep up-to-date on innovations that impact rescues, said Niskayuna Fire Chief Dale Lingenfelter.
“There’s a lot of new things that have come out in the last few years,” Lingenfelter said.
Lingenfelter studied several of these topics in an Internet-based classroom. Some manufacturers are placing emergency responder information related to their new models on their Web sites as well, Lingenfelter said.
A guide from Toyota regarding its 2007 Camry hybrid model alerting firefighters on precautions before extrication highlights several risks they face.
The guide tells firefighters to make sure the car is off before attempting to get a victim out of it and to make sure the car’s keys are at least 3.3 feet away from the car to avoid accidental ignition.
If the car is too damaged to turn it off by ordinary means, firefighters are urged to disconnect the auxiliary battery, and that battery is in the trunk, not under the hood.
Making matters even more difficult is a warning about the car’s high-voltage system: It can remain powered up 10 minutes after all the power is disconnected.
An emergency response manual for the Ford Escape hybrid alerts firefighters that high voltage wires carrying as many as 300 volts are orange in color.
Safety features on the car include inertia switches that shut down power in an accident. But the high-voltage battery, situated in the rear of the car, still holds power and presents a risk of shock.
A General Motors guide for its electric vehicles alerts firefighters they can cut into the cars to get people out — except when it comes to the rear portion of the vehicle just forward of the rear wheels because of the risk of hitting portions of the battery pack.
Another growing concern, Lingenfelter said, is the availability of tools now that vehicle bodies are being built stronger.
“These newer cars are coming out with the reinforced roll cage designs, our cutters are less effective,” he said.
This week, with the help of donated vehicles from Altieri’s Auto of Amsterdam, firefighters had a chance to practice their extrications routines.
“Here, we can take our time a little bit,” Amsterdam Battalion Chief Michael Whitty said.
Firefighters in teams of about seven had four junk vehicles each to tear apart. Cars aren’t readily available for these types of exercises, Whitty said, so the donation was appreciated.