Rescue workers scramble to familiarize themselves with ‘green’car challenges

David Bain, an engineer with the Grand Jnction Fire Department, checks out a new 2009 Toyota Prius at Western Slpoe Auto. Members of the GJFD were looking over some Hybrid cars.

Seeing more electric and hybrid vehicles on the road is a breakthrough for the green revolution, but the battery-operated vehicles create new challenges for emergency workers.

he potentially risky combination of the vehicles’ high voltage wires and gasoline has local firefighters training to keep motorists and themselves safe when those vehicles crash. Also of concern is rescuing motorists whose electric vehicles crash into water, a situation in which emergency workers run the risk of being electrocuted.

When crashed, hybrid and electric vehicles can carry 300 to 500 volts of electricity. Firefighters have to be able to quickly turn off the vehicle’s master electrical switches, which are usually in a vehicle’s rear interior.

They also need to be certain where the high-voltage orange wires are located to avoid injury to emergency workers who sometimes use metal spreaders to extricate motorists from their cars.

A crossed wire in a crashed hybrid could electrocute someone who touches the vehicle.

“There’s a lot more hybrids out there,” firefighter Robert Thomason said. “We need to make sure that the keys are out of the ignition and the engine is shut off. It may still be in gear and running, but you can’t hear it sometimes, especially when you’re out in traffic.” 

Thomason has taken the lead at the Grand Junction Fire Department, making sure his co-workers are up to date on the latest training for electric vehicles. The department has worked a few crashes involving electric vehicles with success.

Still, they have dibs on the next electric vehicle that lands in the junkyard, in the hopes of tearing it apart for training purposes.

Lately, Thomason said, some car dealerships have been helpful, offering firefighters the chance to inspect their hybrid vehicles.

With new models on the market yearly, firefighters must be able to discern the hybrid vehicles from the gas-powered models, a distinction usually made with an emblem.

However, more hybrid vehicles are beginning to look remarkably similar to their gas-powered counterparts.

Some manufacturers offer emergency workers a vehicle’s design information for such safety considerations, Thomason said.

But as manufacturers race to produce the latest model, some car makers are reluctant to release the proprietary information, he added.

“A lot of big companies release the information,” Thomason said. “You’ve got to do a little digging to find others.”

Early Toyota Prius models have their master electrical switches located behind the back seats, but newer models may place the switch in a separate place.

Some manufacturers had considered changing the color of high-voltage wires from orange to blue but that decision didn’t materialize. Such a switch would have created confusion, Thomason said.

The department has drawings on the anticipated hybrid Chevrolet Volt, a car slated to be released next year, he said. Advertising for the vehicle promotes it as being able to run for 40 miles on a single charge.

But well before that vehicle arrives, local emergency workers will know how to safely rescue motorists in those vehicles.

Emergency workers train constantly for such hazards. Airbags have long been a hazard to emergency workers, because they can deploy in the midst of a rescue. Workers also have to know seemingly random information; for instance, one high-end BMW model is equipped with 33 airbags.

“We do look at cars and think, ‘If that car was in a wreck, and we didn’t have any access from driver’s side or the passenger’s side, how would we do it,’ ” Thomason said. “We have to be well-educated on what we’re doing. A lot of people don’t realize what we’re doing during the day when we’re training. We go over it and over it, so that in an emergency situation it has become ingrained.”


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