Life-saving designs intended to keep vehicles safe can keep rescuers from getting inside.
"The way new cars are designed, they crush around the patient so we can't get them open. ... It saves your life, but now nothing works," said Lt. Gregory Vogel, a Pittsburgh fire training academy instructor.
Manufacturers have designed "crumple zones" in the front of vehicles to absorb the energy of a crash and have added reinforcement and padding to the door frames and pillars in case of side impact, said Henry Jasny, general counsel of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington.
"The problem the firefighters may have is the door frames get bent out of shape so the doors don't open," Jasny said. "Most crashes occur at less than 35 mph, and if you can protect the door integrity and the structure of the frame, you won't have that problem with the doors."
The organization has been trying to get the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require manufacturers to ensure that doors remained locked but can open from the inside after a collision at 35 mph or less, Jasny said.
"Every year, we have the possibility of something new we will have to address when new car models come out. It's a lot to keep on top of," said Chuck Nourigat, an engineer with the Washington Fire Department and a state fire instructor who has led classes in vehicle rescues.
Steel used in cars is stronger than other metals used in the past and requires the use of costly hydraulic cutters. And polymer Lexan windshields are difficult to smash and often reseal after they are cut, Nourigat said. For many fire departments, vehicle design changes require the purchase of new and expensive rescue equipment.
Some car designs can pose more risks for firefighters, said John Howell, chief at the High Park Volunteer Fire Department in Hempfield. Increasingly popular hybrid cars can operate with more than one source of electricity, he said.
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"It used to be you just shut off the battery. With a hybrid, you have to do much more. And even with other cars — cell phones in cigarette lighters can keep a charges that backfeed into the car," said Howell, who has been chief for six years.
Pittsburgh firefighters are getting special training that teaches them how to crack open crushed vehicles.
One of the most important aspects of the training is looking for hazards. For example, an electric car in a pool of water could be a risk for electrocution. If a vehicle is on its roof or side, it needs to be stabilized before any rescue attempt. And if a crash should've caused an air bag to deploy and it hasn't, "it means it's going to," said Lt. Tom Pilch of Beechview Engine Co. 28. "That can be dangerous for everyone."
During a recent drill at the fire training academy on Washington Boulevard, firefighters practiced on vehicles from the impound lot destined to be scrapped.
They learned how to safely assess a scene. The training, paid for by a $960,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security, should be finished by the end of next month.
The fire training academy drill is part of a national certification program that includes conducting basic vehicle rescues.
Once the city fire department completes the training, it will be the only metropolitan department in the country where all firefighters have a certification level that allows them to work a scene unsupervised, a standard set by the National Fire Protection Association, fire Chief Darryl Jones said.
"Everyone who leaves the academy will have that and be ready for whatever type of emergency the 21st-century throws at us," said Battalion Chief Michael Riley, who oversees the training academy.
The city's EMS crews handles vehicle rescues in Pittsburgh, but firefighters say training will make them better prepared to assist.
Last year, crews responded to 47 vehicle crashes with entrapment in the city, EMS Deputy Chief Mark Bocian said.