A car has crashed, and someone is trapped inside. The seatbelts and airbags have done their job, and the driver has survived. But now, as firefighters work to extricate him, those safety features become part of pulling the car apart.

Airbags, high-strength steel, and hybrid electrical systems must all be taken into account, and first responders are continually upgrading their skills to stay on top of the latest features.

“My job is primarily to keep up with the new technology that exists today,” says Mark Bardgett, a captain with Toronto Fire Services’ Professional Development & Training. “We have online training, shift training instructors, and an auto extrication skills maintenance program.”

While the basics haven’t changed — first stabilize patient and vehicle, and then determine the best way to dismantle the car — fire services are constantly learning as cars become more sophisticated.

“Some vehicles have five layers of steel and reinforced pillars,” Bardgett says. “If you cut it, you can see that there are layers of overriding steel, and we teach our crews to work with it. It doesn’t take longer to get someone out, but we look at different ways when we assess wrecks, and determine what is the best way to defeat the structure. We look at the make of the vehicle, the type of vehicle, and come up with a plan to perform the quickest, safest extrication, with the patient being the common denominator. If the method isn’t successful, we always have a ‘Plan B’ in store.”

A routine is always followed. First, the vehicle is stabilized with wooden structures, called cribs, to prevent rolling or shifting. Then, before any cuts are made, firefighters “peel and peek,” Bardgett says, looking for safety system triggers, brakes or fuel lines. They can be in various places, but standardization wouldn’t matter; even if the crew had cut apart an identical vehicle the day before, they would still check before proceeding.

They disconnect the battery, but stay away from the “strike zone” around undeployed airbags, which may still be live.

“Fire departments have always been able to meet the challenges of new vehicle technology. It will just be a case of gaining information and learning it. With safety procedures in mind, a rescue scene can be a very safe and efficient operation.”

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