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Ready for the real deal

Valley firefighters train with vehicle extraction tools

Their jokes aren’t as good, but firefighters have power tools to make television handyman “Tim the Toolman” drool.

Spokane Valley firefighters got out the big hardware for recent classes on how to remove people from mangled cars.

“We all really love it,” said Capt. Ryan Lieuallen, who was one of the instructors. “It’s a lot of fun. We’ve got big old tools that can do amazing things.”

Even so, safety features in new cars are creating challenges that may require bigger tools and different techniques.

From Spokane to Post Falls, local fire officials say they’re adapting to innovations that make vehicles safer while adding danger and difficulty to rescue operations.

Those include side-curtain airbags, stronger window glass and extra-hard steel in roof posts.

Some hydraulic cutters that can open older cars like a can of party nuts “will only make divots” in the Boron-hardened roof posts many newer cars have, according to Jaws of Life salesman Brian Livingston.

When that happens, firefighters have to find another way.

Having a backup when Plan A fails was the theme of a drill firefighter Steve Presta led during this year’s annual Spokane Valley Fire Department extrication classes.

“It’s just like a fire,” Presta told his students. “What if this doesn’t work?”

An extrication supervisor needs to be ready with a Plan B and maybe a Plan C, he said.

In Presta’s drill, firefighters tried to rescue an injured passenger by prying open the right front door, but the door began to push into the patient.

Plan B was a “sideout” maneuver in which firefighters removed the whole right side of the car, starting with the back door.

“You guys didn’t take five minutes to make a huge opening in this car,” Presta said afterward.

The gutted 1994 Chevrolet Cavalier didn’t have any exotic steel in its roof pillars, but the firefighters would have cut through it, anyway.

Livingston and Eric McAuliff, representing a Seattle emergency equipment supplier, brought a bigger, better set of hydraulic tools for the firefighters to try.

“We’re looking at buying those this year to increase our reach,” Presta said.

The new tools are three times as powerful and can cut three times farther in a single bite than the tools the department now has on three trucks. A full set – cutter, spreader, ram and compressor – costs about $25,000.

“You don’t really want to get into Plan C,” Livingston said.

The goal of an extrication is to make as big an opening in the wreck as possible, he said. That reduces the risk of injury to firefighters as well as to patients.

Patients need to be kept as “linear” as possible when they’re removed in case they have back injuries, Livingston said.

Smaller cars have contributed to the problem, according to Brian Schaeffer, assistant chief of the Spokane Fire Department.

Schaeffer said that in the past two or three rescuers would sometimes climb into a wreck to help a victim.

“You can’t do that anymore,” he said.

In a recent example of the danger of working in close quarters in a wrecked vehicle, Schaeffer said a Spokane firefighter was seriously injured while helping rescue a horse from a wrecked trailer that had to be cut open.

The rescue was successful, but the horse pushed a firefighter against a sharp piece of metal. Schaeffer said the firefighter suffered a deep cut and possible nerve damage in one of her arms.

Schaeffer said some fire departments are turning to reciprocating saws to cut through metals their hydraulic cutters can’t handle.

So far, though, the Spokane Valley Fire Department hasn’t encountered any situation in which its current equipment couldn’t get the job done, according to extrication instructor Capt. Andy Rorie.

The situation is the same in Post Falls and other areas served by Kootenai County Fire and Rescue. Lt. John Ward said the department is training for tough-to-cut new vehicles, but so far hasn’t had to deal with many of them.

“You know, what I’m really more worried about right now is people carrying five-gallon gas cans,” Ward said.

Nevertheless, Ward said his department tries to stay on its toes with a computer database that can spit out a list of potential hazards while crews are en route to a wreck.

As soon as they know the make and model of the wreck, firefighters can get detailed information about the vehicle.

One of the newest hazards is alternative fuels, Schaeffer said. A few cars now run on compressed natural gas, others on hydrogen.

“It’s past the experimental phase,” Schaeffer said. “They’re manufacturing them, apparently.”

Batteries in hybrid cars also are creating hazards.

“Many of the hybrid cars carry enough electricity to kill a company of firefighters,” Schaeffer said.

That’s one of the reasons for the new Kevlar composite struts Rorie introduced to Spokane Valley firefighters. The telescoping devices don’t conduct electricity when they’re used to stabilize vehicles that have rolled.

You don’t want to provide a ground for 300 volts of electricity, Rorie said.

The rescue struts brace overturned vehicles like the “outriggers” that keep a backhoe from tipping.

In the past, firefighters often corralled wrecks by planting wooden post next to them. But Rorie said the posts, called “wedges,” don’t work well on cars with plastic side panels that buckle easily.

He said firefighters are seeing more rollover accidents as cars become lighter and rounder. Cars that used to stack like bricks now are more unstable when one lands on top of another.

The new $1,500 struts are deployed on “advanced life support” trucks at Station 6, at Sprague Avenue and Interstate 90, and at Station 3, on Harvard Road in Liberty Lake.

A specialized rescue truck at Station 8, on Wilbur Road near Pines and Indiana, also will get a set of the new struts. They’re easier to use than the struts the truck already carried.

Previously, no other truck had rescue struts.

Rorie, Presta and Lieuallen taught classes over three days at the Pull & Save auto wrecking yard, which kept them supplied with cars waiting to be crushed.

The vehicles were too old for Boron-hardened steel and side-curtain airbags, but firefighters pretended.

Companies of three to four firefighters each went through the motions of cutting a section out of the battery cable and searching for the compressed-gas cylinders used to inflate airbags. They also searched for keys that might activate radio-controlled starters.

“Before we cut this, let’s make sure we’re not getting into something,” Presta told one of the companies he trained.

He wanted the firefighters to peel the lining off the middle roof post, known as the B pillar, to look for gas cylinders.

“They just make a mini torpedo if you cut through one of them,” Lieuallen said. “Even three or four years ago, we didn’t think about this stuff.”

Some cars have bumper shock absorbers with the same kind of potentially explosive cylinders.

Side-curtain airbags and hardened steel columns that were introduced in a few high-end vehicles in the mid- to late 1990s now are common.

“There are cars on the road right now with 16 airbags in them,” Rorie said.

Although Spokane Valley firefighters deliberately detonated an airbag cylinder in a training demonstration, they’ve never set one off by accident.

Even with batteries disconnected, electricity-storing capacitors can discharge the airbag cylinders. To avoid that hazard, Lieuallen and Presta cautioned firefighters to observe “nickel,” “dime” and “quarter” safety zones.

The zones correspond to the distances various airbags can reach: five inches for side curtains, 10 inches for steering-wheel bags and 25 inches for those that pop out of dashboards to protect front-seat passengers.

“Bumpers that can explode, airbags going off when you’re working on people, those are pretty significant hazards,” Schaeffer said.

Firefighters aren’t complaining, though, Rorie said. The new technology works.

He cited a wreck earlier this fall in which a mid-size pickup struck a Toyota Prius hybrid.

The pickup rolled and was a total loss, but passengers in the Prius “just walked away from it,” Rorie said.

John Craig may be contacted at