Responders train for hybrid, electric car rescues
WINDSOR LOCKS (AP) -- On Interstate 84 recently, a taxi became lodged under a tractor-trailer after being struck from behind.
The first priority for firefighters was getting the victim out of the car but because the vehicle had been so severely damaged, no one noticed it was a hybrid.
If the battery pack was not disconnected, the combustion engine could start when the voltage dropped, putting everyone at risk.
With all-electric and hybrid vehicles, or cars with both combustion engines and battery packs, becoming more prevalent, fire departments across the country have instituted new courses to instruct personnel on the potential hazards they may encounter at a motor vehicle accident.
In 2010, the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit group formed in 1896, received a $4.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop such a training program.
Instructors from 38 fire departments across the state recently attended a train-the-trainer course at the Connecticut Fire Academy to view procedures in handling all-electric and hybrid vehicle accidents.
James Carroll, program manger at the academy, said automobile manufacturers and service personnel were great in giving them all the books filled with information on the vehicles, but they needed simpler stuff.
The fire association took the data and created a two-page Emergency Response Guide, so emergency crews could focus on critical information when they arrive at the scene of an accident.
"We need to follow three steps: identify, immobilize, and disable," Carroll said.
"We need to disconnect that 12-volt battery and kill the power."
Carroll said another problem that firefighters face is locating the battery pack because, depending on the make and model, it could be under the hood, in the trunk, under the seat, or even in the wheel well.
Firefighters always have had to be careful when extricating victims from a vehicle, fire association instructor Christopher Pepler said.
Fuel lines, brake lines, and airbag deployment lines always have been a concern.
But now emergency personnel need to be cautious of the battery "cut points' that may cause an electric shock, he explained.
Pepler said that the high strength steel being used in electric and hybrid cars is creating additional concerns.
Although the cars are 75 percent lighter, they are now 15 percent stronger, making it difficult for firefighters to cut through it to reach anyone trapped inside., Pepler said.
Another possible danger is a battery breach, Pepler said, in which fluids can leak onto the ground, creating an environmental hazard.
The class was taken outside to view two examples of hybrid vehicles, a Ford Escape and a Toyota Prius, and become familiar with the location of the batteries and wiring.
Instructor Jason Emery told the group of responders that one of the biggest worries is how quiet a hybrid or all-electric car can be.
"The vehicle can be in the ready mode, and if a victim inside accidentally steps on the accelerator, it can take off," Emergy explained.
Carroll is confident the program will be beneficial and the new information can be taught to firefighters across the state to reduce the risk of injury to them, and still provide quick medical attention to accident victims.
"It's one thing to study a car in a lab, quite another when it's laying on its side in a ditch," he said.