Seatbelt Restraint Systems – Part 1

Subject: Seatbelt Restraint Systems - Part 1 Topic: Seatbelt Pretensioners Objective: Given a late-model vehicle, the rescuer will be able to identify the seatbelts with pretensioner systems, understand how the system operates and explain...

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Training tips for first responders

EMS, fire and rescue personnel should be capable of identifying seatbelt pretensioners in a vehicle, should understand the safety considerations for working near these systems and must know how pretensioners can assist us with patient assessment and care. The following tips for responders should be considered:



• There are no visible identifiers for seatbelt pretensioners. Assume they are there on all front-seat three-point seatbelt systems at least. Outboard, rear three-point harness systems may have pretensioners also.

• An accordian-type sleeve, directly below the buckle end of a seatbelt, is a very good indicator that a pretensioner is present at the lower end of the buckle. If deployed during a collision, the seatbelt buckle may be at or even below the top of the seat cushion. The accordian sleeve will most likely appear compressed as well if the system has fired.


Responder safety

• Strip the trim when pushing off a B-pillar, cutting the pillar for removal or opening or removing the roof. This will reveal the location of a pretensioner mounted anywhere along the inside of the B-pillar so you can avoid the unit and work effectively around it.

• Use the same precautions with an undeployed pretensioner as you would with an airbag-stored gas inflator, although it in no way presents as great a risk to responders as an undeployed inflator cylinder.

• Avoid cutting or crushing an undeployed pretensioner if possible. A recoiler-mounted unit may be able to be removed if it is in the way during extrication.

• Shutting down a vehicle’s 12-volt electrical system also shuts down power to undeployed pretensioners. Because pretensioners are wired into the airbag circuitry, they also have a similar “drain time” like airbags do after 12-volt power has been taken away.


Patient considerations

• To avoid creating or increasing injury to a patient, unbuckle or cut the seatbelt from your patient once you make patient contact.

• If your patient was not wearing their seatbelt at the moment of the collision and the pretensioner fired, you will typically find the seatbelt in a vertical position along the inside of the B-pillar. It will be drawn extremely tight due to the pretensioner operation. This is a valuable patient assessment tool; confirming that the pretensioner operated and that this seatbelt was not being worn at the moment of the collision. Exceptions to this include the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix automobiles. The seatbelt pretensioners on these “twins” will not deploy if the seatbelt is not buckled.

• If you arrive, are assigned to a front-seat patient and find the seatbelt unbuckled already, look at it. If it is extended and not retractable, then you know the pretensioner fired and that the seatbelt was being worn at the time of the collision.

• If you find an empty front seat and an extended, non-retractable seatbelt, then that seatbelt was also being worn at the moment the crash occurred. Locate that patient. Someone was belted into that seat when the crash occurred! n


TASK: The rescue team shall identify the presence of seatbelt pretensioners, verify that the system has or has not deployed and employ recommended protocols for dealing with pretensioner systems at incident scenes.


Ron Moore will present “The Challenges Of Extrication Involving Vehicles With Advanced Steel” and “Hybrid & Electric Plug-In Vehicle Fire & Rescue Procedures” at Firehouse Expo 2012, July 17-21 in Baltimore, MD.

Ron Moore, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as training chief for the McKinney, TX, Fire Department. He also authors a monthly online article in the “MembersZone” and serves as the Forum Moderator for the extrication section of the website. Moore can be contacted directly at