IIHS hosts first-responder emergency extrication training program

October 2, 2019

More than 50 Virginia first responders practiced cutting into vehicles during a training session last week at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s facility in Ruckersville, Virginia. The annual event gives emergency personnel hands-on training in extricating crash victims from today’s tough-to-cut-through cars.

The National Auto Body Council has conducted its First Responder Emergency Extrication (FREE) program at the IIHS Vehicle Research Center (VRC) four times. It’s one of about 50 such events the council holds nationwide each year.

The VRC is a fitting location for the training session, since IIHS vehicle testing and safety awards are partly responsible for the beefed-up structures and added features that make today’s vehicles safer but also add more complexity to rescue work. People are more likely to survive serious crashes, but it can take more knowledge and skill for first responders to help people out of their vehicles. 

The introduction of the IIHS roof strength test in 2010, for instance, prompted manufacturers to beef up support structures to keep vehicle roofs from collapsing in a rollover. IIHS front and side crash tests encouraged automakers to design occupant compartments that are better able to resist intrusion.

“Now in crashes at 40 miles per hour there’s a good chance you can just walk up to the wreck and open the door,” says Greg Brown, a retired State Farm manager who serves as vice chair of the NABC’s FREE committee.

In more serious crashes at higher speeds, however, the tough materials that make newer cars safer also require different techniques and sometimes stronger tools to lever open. Undeployed airbags, high-voltage batteries and alternative fuels can also pose unfamiliar hazards. Unlike older vehicles, Brown says, “you can’t just cut them.”

The training is not just about cutting stronger steel, says Justin Mathews, a firefighter with the Waynesboro, Virginia, fire department who has attended three such training sessions at IIHS. Last year, for instance, he cut open a new Ford F-150, which now features an aluminum body that behaves very differently from steel when you cut into it.

The FREE program gives rescue workers the opportunity to dismantle late-model vehicles that are rarely offered to them by local donors due to their high salvage value, program manager George Avery says. Bodyshop technicians who have already repaired them or cut them apart for salvage help familiarize the first responders with the latest high-strength steel, airbags, advanced restraint systems, onboard technology and safety around alternative fuel vehicles, while tool company representatives provide tips on using the latest extrication tools.

This year, State Farm Insurance donated a 2011 Nissan Altima, 2011 Honda Civic, 2012 Chevrolet Malibu, 2011 Volkswagen Routan and 2012 Nissan Versa, and M&M Auto Parts donated a 2006 Ford Fusion for the rescue workers to dismantle. IIHS also provided a 2016 Tesla Model S for an orientation about its unique features, though it was not cut apart.

Captain Michael O’Brien, a volunteer firefighter from Purcellville, Virginia, said he often has occasion to apply the knowledge he gains from the FREE sessions. 

“Last week we were working on a car pinned under a school bus. We had no access to the sides of the vehicle, so we had to use the eDraulic [extrication tool] off our reserve engine to remove the A, B and C posts to get the patient out,” says O’Brien, referring to the steel pillars that frame the vehicle’s front doors, rear doors and rear windows.

It took more than 25 minutes to get the person out, but without the training, it might have taken longer.

“You always come away with one or two new tricks that could mean minutes,” O’Brien says.

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