Tough cars lead to tough rescues

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NEWARK (USA) — Increased durability of automobiles in recent years has led to fewer fatal crashes nationwide, but the stronger construction also has a slight downside: a longer and harder extrication process for emergency workers.

Although today’s cars save lives by cocooning motorists in reinforced alloys, impact-absorbing crumple zones and multiple air bags, rescue crews often are forced to work deeper into the critical “golden hour” between accident and treatment by emergency room doctors.

On many 2005 and later cars, an extrication that once took 10 or 15 minutes can now take twice that or longer.

“I think the ultimate goal is to prevent intrusion into the passenger compartment and to reduce the number of life-threatening injuries, and with that they’re complicating our jobs significantly,” Newark fire Capt. David Decker said.

Decker said his team of emergency workers have had “significant training on the extrication process,” especially as of late because of the increasing risks associated with pulling victims out of wrecked vehicles.

“We have tools with over 100,000 pounds of strength to cut with, and we’re still encountering difficulties,” Decker said.

The problem has rescue workers scrambling to update their tools and explore different ways to attack cars with their cutters, spreaders and saws. Some agencies with equipment more than a few years old are arriving at crash scenes and finding out it will no longer do the job.

Leading hydraulic-tool makers such as Hurst Jaws of Life — whose namesake George Hurst introduced the first hydraulic extrication tools for auto racing in the early 1970s — must keep putting more oomph into their equipment, making it heavier and more expensive. A single Hurst cutter and power unit runs about $25,000. Add hydraulic spreaders and other tools and the price rises quickly.

Purchasing stronger tools to cut through stronger materials is one way — albeit a pricey one — to keep up with changing vehicles, Decker said. The other, he said, is education.

“The other part of the picture is training on how to safely and quickly extricate people in these new cars,” he said.

There also are obstacles within the vehicles that can endanger rescuers’ safety. Pressurized gas canisters that inflate air bags can explode if pierced by cutting tools. Rescuers can be blown from cars when air bags suddenly inflate. Hidden battery cables in hybrid cars can deliver a powerful shock.

Environment-friendly cars are no exception: Some hybrid cars can produce up to 600 volts and pose serious risk to firefighters, Decker said.

“Additionally, they’re trying to make vehicles operate cleaner, which is causing problems with combating fires,” Decker said, because of the fuel’s composition.

Heath fire Capt. Bob Kozlowski said the Heath fire department has not yet run into a difficult extraction caused by a vehicle’s reinforced construction, but it’s only a matter of time.

“As of right now we haven’t run into it, but I’m sure we’re going to,” Kozlowski said.
The Heath fire department is structuring classes on the subject for the summer, he said.

He said he was unsure about whether the department would have to purchase stronger extraction equipment.

“If nothing else, we may end up purchasing another pair of cutters,” he said. “Titanium, you can’t really cut it with steel — it won’t do you any good.”