Experts: Cars Safer for Consumers, Not Firefighters

At a firefighter training center, a modern sport-utility vehicle is being carved up like a rotisserie chicken at a summer picnic.

But the lesson today isn't just about how to save trapped victims in serious car accidents.

Rather, it's focusing on how cars have changed in ways that make rescues more complicated and dangerous for first responders -- from new types of steel that are tougher to cut, to high-voltage cables in hybrid-electric cars. Firefighters and other first responders now face a host of unknowns at the scene of any serious auto accident.

"They're designing cars for consumers, not for rescuers," instructor Greg Rudiger tells a class of first responders here at the Rio Hondo Fire Academy training center.

Automakers want to help make rescues easier but are in a bind: Consumers are demanding lighter cars with advanced powertrains that get better fuel economy without sacrificing safety. Designs that accomplish those goals and include the most desired safety features also sometimes increase injury risks for rescuers. They make it tougher to extract victims to rush them to emergency rooms in the "golden hour," the critical 60 minutes that can decide life or death.

As a result, automakers are trying to work with fire departments and educators around the country to train rescuers in new techniques and inform them about potential risks in person or with an avalanche of information and diagrams.

Industry groups also are pushing for stricter safety labeling and training. A task force of SAE International, a powerful industry group founded as the Society of Automotive Engineers, is close to recommending standardized labels for the inside and outside of all hybrid and other electrified cars so that first responders know quickly what type of vehicle they have encountered after a crash.

Some individual automakers are taking their own initiatives. Firefighters often get to practice techniques only on old junk cars, but South Korean maker Kia recently donated 32 3-year-old Borrego SUVs with recent technology and design to the academy in this industrial city southeast of Los Angeles for crews to tear apart.

"We need to tell them where all the hazards are," says Kia spokesman Scott McKee, who was on hand to see some of his company's vehicles unceremoniously dispatched.

Having the latest vehicles on hand for practice allows rescuers to deal with hazards such as:

Air bags. Cutters or other extraction tools can puncture explosive propellant tanks of any air bags that didn't inflate in a crash.

Hybrid batteries. More vehicles have hybrid or electric powerplants, in which it is critical to properly handle high-voltage cables and lithium-ion or nickel-metal-hydride batteries after an accident.

High-strength steel. Automakers are using higher percentages of high-strength and ultra-high-strength steel in car bodies to save on weight and boost gas mileage. It's much lighter than standard steel but much tougher to shear, bend or tear apart. And in order to meet tougher roof-crush standards, the support pillars are stronger, making them harder to snip.

Keyless ignitions. Push-button ignitions that don't use keys often make it difficult to know when the engine is running. The problem is complicated in hybrid and electric cars, which can be fully "on" without an engine running.

Rescuing victims from crashed cars has never been safe for first responders. Conventional cars, with a full tank of gas, can explode after a crash and fire. Also, mangled car bodies may have come to rest in precarious positions that require time-consuming stabilization before the rescue can begin.

But the latest electrified cars present their own, new safety issues.

Earlier this year, for instance, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported it was investigating whether and how fires could occur if the big battery packs of Chevrolet's Volt plug-in extended-range electric car were breached after an accident. In each instance, the fire broke out long after the accident. GM says it has since fixed the problem.

Rescuers and trainers say they need to learn more about these new technologies. "With the new high-voltage systems, there was an audience that was left out, and that was the firefighter," says Bill Davis, assistant director of the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium at West Virginia University, which has training programs for first responders.

Every second counts

First responders rolling up to an accident scene don't want to have to waste vital seconds trying to figure out what threats they face. Yet they must, given all the various new engine technologies, from diesel to plug-in electric, plug-in hybrid, hybrid, natural gas or even hydrogen-powered cars.

Firefighters know instantly that Honda Insight is a hybrid. But other models are more elusive. Buick Enclaves or Toyota Camrys now come in hybrid versions that look nearly identical to conventional versions.

And it's not just new cars. Davis points to older models of the Saturn Vue or Chevrolet Silverado pickups with so-called mild hybrid systems that still pack up to 50 volts instead of the standard 12-volt systems on conventional cars. They, too, can be hard to tell apart.

Recognizing the new challenges, the SAE committee set out to try to create safety recommendations for manufacturers that could help not only police, firefighters and paramedics, but those who arrive at a crash later, such as tow-truck drivers.

So the committee is formulating recommendations that focus on a standard label on the outside of the car. Labels could go on the trunk lid to instantly denote the type of powerplant. They also are looking at a corresponding label inside. There are already some cars with such labels: those that run on compressed natural gas. They have a blue diamond-shaped sticker on the rear that reads CNG.

Of course, stickers can be ugly. Todd Mackintosh, a GM engineer who is the SAE committee's chairman, says the recommendations will try to balance automakers' "marketing needs" while trying to help first responders.

Besides labeling, Mackintosh says, a standardized quick-reference guide is under consideration that will list every hybrid or electric car or truck model and list hazards firefighters may face.

At present, such information is available from various sources but can be inconsistent. Mackintosh says some automakers provide firefighters with quick-reference manuals, while others have guides of up to 63 pages.

Toyota says it distributes its guides not just to first responders but to towing company operators as well.

GM also is among the automakers that have launched training programs to make sure first responders know how to deal with its electrified cars after a crash. More than 10,000 have taken an online course in electric-vehicle safety that GM has offered in conjunction with the National Fire Protection Association, the NFPA and GM say.

As the two started to work together on the challenges presented by electric cars, says Ken Willette, division manager for the NFPA, they also found an answer to a problem with all new cars. High-strength steel was proving to be stronger than rescuers' hydraulic rescue cutters and spreaders. "The tools are challenged," Willette says.

They discovered, however, that certain angles of cuts could overcome the disadvantage, he says.

For rescuers practicing at Rio Hondo, not only was steel an issue, but there was no getting around the hazards posed by air bags, or specifically the propellant tanks throughout the car.

"It's not different than trying to chop into a scuba tank," says David Kang, a firefighter and paramedic for the Orange County (Calif.) Fire Authority and lead instructor at Rio Hondo.

Air bags have been in cars for decades, of course, but automakers have added many more, often in unexpected places. Toyota brags that its new Scion iQ, one of the smallest cars on the road, has among the most air bags: 12, including one at the rear hatch.

On top of new improvements

Having newer vehicles, such as the conventionally powered Borregos, helps firefighters keep current with the new improvements, says instructor Rudiger. "I can't give you street-level credibility when I'm cutting up a 1980 Camry," he tells his class of about 40.

The vehicle donation works for Kia as well, building good will with firefighters while dispatching vehicles that were bound for destruction anyway. The Borregos were early-production models that the automaker didn't want in the hands of average consumers, even as used vehicles.

Rudiger advised his class of firefighters to avoid some of the dangers using a technique called "peel and peek" -- using jaws tools to look for hazards before cutting into a car. Also, he told them to look on the undamaged side of a car for hazards, knowing it will likely be a mirror-image of the damaged side.

"The vehicles of today are much more difficult to extricate (people from) than the vehicles of yesterday," says lead instructor Kang. "We have to get more surgical."


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