Modern Vehicles More Dangerous for First Responders

It is no secret that auto manufacturers around the world have gone to great lengths in recent years to make cars as safe as possible for drivers, passengers, and now even pedestrians. However, in a recent article by USA Today's Chris Woodyard, safer vehicles are posing greater dangers to the emergency service workers who diligently respond to accident scenes.

The past decade has provided new technology that makes the job of a first responder much more difficult during the period known as the "golden hour," or the critical hour-long window that rescuers have to get crash victims to the emergency room following a serious accident. This critical period can often be the difference between life and death.

One obstacle comes from the rapid growth of hybrid vehicles. While certain models are easily distinguished as a hybrid or electric vehicle, such as a Nissan Leaf or Toyota Prius, other more common models like Toyota Camrys and Honda Civics are becoming more prevalent as hybrid models. Even large trucks and SUVs like the Chevrolet Silverado and Tahoe now come in hybrid models. It is essential for first responders to be able to distinguish hybrids models, since contact with high-voltage cables in the vehicle can result in death, while injuries and fires can result from damaged and breached battery packs. Keyless ignition systems in these models add a further degree of difficulty that complicate matters, making it difficult to tell if the vehicle's electrical is "on" even if the car isn't running.

Beyond complications with hybrid-electric power systems, high-strength steel and air bags have become more prevalent in vehicles, which make it more difficult to cut into a vehicle following an accident. As the number of air bags in vehicles goes up, so does the number of propellant tanks required to inflate the air bags. If certain air bags are not deployed in an accident, there lies the risk of puncture to explosive propellant tanks from cutting and extraction tools. The article points out that cutting into certain systems can be like cutting into a pressurized scuba tank.

To remedy the problem, experts believe it is essential that emergency services workers receive proper training when it comes to dealing with new vehicles. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International is close to recommending standardized labels for the interior and exterior of all hybrid and electric vehicles that would allow first responders to know exactly what kind of vehicle they have encountered. In addition to labeling, the group is working to develop a standardized quick-reference guide that will list every hybrid or electric car or truck model and list hazards that firefighters may face.

In addition, manufacturers are also making efforts to aid first responders. Toyota distributes written guides to first responders and towing companies to help educate about their electric and hybrid vehicles. General Motors (GM) offers online training course in electrical vehicle safety that they have launched in conjunction with the National Fire Protection Association. Kia recently went the extra mile by donating 32, three-year-old Borrego SUVs equipped with modern multiple air bag systems and high-strength steel to the Rio Hondo, Calif. fire academy to allow fire fighters to practice cutting through the vehicles.

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