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First Responders Studying Electric Cars to Handle Crashes

PITTSBURGH -- Although the Chevrolet Volt has fueled heated debates in the political arena, emergency responders are more concerned about preventing fires when it and other electric cars are involved in crashes.

Paul Gurcak, hybrid technician at Sun Chevrolet in McMurray, is working to help firefighters understand dangers specific to electric cars.

"You're working with high-voltage electricity," said Gurcak, 54, of Finleyville. "When these guys show up, they need to know how to protect themselves when doing extractions. You don't want to make it worse."

Gurcak partnered with the Elrama Volunteer Fire Department in Washington County last month for a training session that drew about 60 people from seven local departments.

Elrama Capt. Frank Culver said more departments have contacted him since then seeking similar sessions.

"No one knew what to do," Culver said.

Before extracting anyone who might be trapped in the car as a result of a wreck, firefighters must disable the low-voltage cables in the car's trunk. Those cables control the high-voltage cables, so cutting them decreases the chance of fire.

Gurcak said the safety measure is used primarily when a crash leaves people trapped in the car, not for fender-benders. Drivers should treat electric cars as they would any vehicle after a crash, he said. "There's nothing the consumer needs to do. You don't need to run away from it" for fear of fire, he said.

Gurcak uses a Volt to give firefighters firsthand experience with an electric car. The Volt came under criticism last year when battery fires erupted twice at testing sites. No fires occurred elsewhere, but the tests prompted a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation.

The two-month investigation ended last month with the safety agency concluding the Volt and other electric cars don't pose a greater fire risk than gasoline-powered cars. However, all Volts will undergo retrofits to better protect the battery from damage in crashes.

Republicans have accused the agency of purposely delaying disclosure of the Volt battery fires to avoid criticism of the government's bailout of General Motors Co. Agency and GM officials denied those allegations.

Since the vehicle became widely available last year, Sun Chevrolet has had two on the lot. One sold, Gurcak said.

Louis Chiodo, president of the Vortex Electric Vehicle Association in Sewickley, said his organization supports the firefighter training, which he said is becoming common across the country.

"It's not a government mandate that directs manufacturers to give direction to first responders," he said, adding that he's pleased the companies are opting to act on their own. "We see it as a very good thing."



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