Hybrids Raise Victim Extrication Questions

A prominent publication has stirred up concern within the fire service and the general public by alleging a lack of willingness in the fire/rescue community to respond to victims of hybrid vehicle crashes.


A prominent publication has stirred up concern within the fire service and the general public by alleging a lack of willingness in the fire/rescue community to respond to victims of hybrid vehicle crashes.

The September issue of Car and Driver Magazine features a column by automotive writer Brock Yates, which states that "...a number of fire and EMS crews have announced that they will refuse to rescue victims trapped in such vehicles, openly fearing electrocution or fatal acid burns."

Neither Car and Driver Magazine nor Brock Yates responded to Firehouse.com's request to identify which fire departments made these alleged announcements, and fire service leaders questioned the veracity of the statement.

"I don't know why anyone would question the willingness of the fire service to handle any sort of emergency, and I don't believe, unless you can prove otherwise, there is any credible evidence to suggest that is actually happening," said International Association of Fire Fighters spokesman Jeff Zack.

"How is this different than responding to downed power lines or a chemical fire of some sort? This just doesn't appear credible on its face or in its substance," he said. "Firefighters have never shrunk in the face of adversity and I don't think they're doing it in this case."

The National Volunteer Fire Council agreed. "We're quite aware of the concern regarding hybrid vehicles, but I have not heard of any department saying, 'We're going to stop rescuing people in these vehicles,'" said spokesman Craig Sharman.

However, when asked about the fire/rescue service's current state of preparedness to respond to hybrid vehicles, no one can give a definitive answer because there is no formal distribution of hybrid vehicle response information. The burden is on individual agencies to seek out the information, but experts say it is common knowledge in the fire/rescue community that hybrid vehicle manufacturers provide emergency response guide books for free online and through local dealerships.

Although there are still relatively few hybrid vehicles on the road, they do get into accidents and rescue workers do need to be prepared. An Internet search revealed at least three newsworthy crashes of hybrid cars during the month of August, in Maryland, California and Florida.

So far these accidents have not caused notable problems for rescue workers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "To date, the NHTSA has not had any reports of difficulties involving extrication or emergency techniques with these vehicles," said spokeswoman Elly Martin.

Ron Moore, author of the University of Extrication series featured in Firehouse magazine and moderator of the University of Extrication interactive web site on Firehouse.com, says that with training, no fire department would make the statement alleged in Car and Driver.

To refuse to respond to hybrid vehicle crashes would be unnecessary, as well as an issue of liability and discrimination, he said. "I have never heard of a department that would be so foolish as to make that statement," Moore said.

When hybrids initially came out, there was a lot of hype among rescuers about the possibility of electrocution if the car went into a ditch of water, or of electrocution caused by cutting the wrong wire, he said.

"All of those have turned out to be essentially urban legends because of the engineering of the vehicles," Moore said. "That isn't going to happen."

The reality, he said, is that hybrid vehicles pose manageable challenges, and educated rescue workers can manage a hybrid vehicle crash as safely as any other crash.

The first challenge, he said, is to even recognize that a vehicle is a hybrid because they have minimal exterior markings. A Honda Accord and a Honda Accord Hybrid look the same, Moore said, except that, "On the back of the Accord Hybrid -- on the trunk -- is a little extra word, that says 'Hybrid.'"

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