A Tried and True Approach to Escaping from Sinking Vehicles–And The Guy Behind the Testing

He’s affectionately called “Dr. Popsicle,” a label that stuck from a magazine article about this modern-day Houdini who can escape unscathed from frigid water and sunken vehicles, although he doesn’t go down into the cold depths shackled in chains.

It’s his job, his interest, and something the media likes to cover because it’s “sexy,” which means his research doesn’t have to clamor for attention. He’s been featured in several big-name magazines and television channels, including a feature article in Outside, which, in 2003, described him resolutely skiing into frigid water, hauling 180 pounds piled on sledges the length of Lake Winnipeg for 26 days, planning an 800-mile trek across the Canadian high Arctic, and having a colleague inject two quarts of nearly frozen saline solution into his bloodstream over a one-hour period. 

He likes the coverage, but personal attention is not his intention.

“I care about the message getting out, not being in the media,” said Gordon Giesbrecht, PhD., Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada. “There’s a lot of very important research being done that doesn’t help people because it doesn’t get reported. There are good messages that lack the flashiness.”

Dr. Popsicle, Thermophysiologist

Giesbrecht is a world-renowned thermophysiologist; he studies the effects of cold on the human body in some extreme studies. He immerses himself into cold-water to the point of hypothermia, and he does so in the interest of helping others survive.

His research has indirectly saved the lives of people in cold stress who have followed his advice and survived. He has also provided education to rescue/medical personnel that has helped in the treatment of cold patients including those who were once thought beyond resuscitation. 

Research, and subsequent emergency care for patients considered beyond hope, proved that no temperature is low enough not to attempt CPR.

He has also helped to dispel cold-response myths. Giesbrecht has lowered his body temperature at least three dozen times during research trials, and found that it takes longer than expected–about an hour in 8 degrees Celsius (46.4 degrees Fahrenheit) water, to become even mildly hypothermic.1

The latter finding took Giesbrecht down another path in water survival, in which the research isn’t necessarily confined to accidents involving extremely cold conditions.

The Case of Calvin Wood

It was cold day in January 2002, and Calvin Sean Wood was operating a five-ton truck to clear snow in an area of a proposed road over the ice of Island Lake in east central Manitoba, Canada. The truck went through the ice. The body of Calvin Wood was recovered from the truck two days later, inside the cab of the vehicle.2

Wood was not wearing any flotation device. At the inquest into Wood’s death, Giesbrecht was called to testify about the potential role of cold exposure and the use of various flotation devices.

“The judge said find Gordon,” Giesbrecht said. “I was the cold-weather guy to ask.”  

True to form, Giesbrecht conducted a number of experiments wearing various types of flotation devices while getting out of a submersion vehicle simulator (SVS) similar in size to that of the truck Wood was driving. The results demonstrated that almost all flotation devices tested enabled the wearer to exit the enclosed space with little difficulty, contrary to the belief that the devices would be too cumbersome for a fast exit.2

As a result of the inquest, significant changes were made in the manner of constructing winter ice roads, along with formal training and the use of safety devices, including flotation gear and satellite telephones.

Dr. Giesbrecht headed toward this relatively unexplored area of research.

“That’s how I got started in this,” he said. “It’s like a lot of things. Someone suggested studying this and the money and interest followed. The province of Manitoba didn’t want this to happen again.”

It was also an area that desperately needed research. According to statistics compiled by Giesbrecht and his associates, 400 people in North America die each year in submerged vehicles, accounting for 5—11% percent of all drownings. He swallowed the bait.

Research in Submerged Vehicles

Giesbrecht’s first submersion (separate from the inquest) was in Alaska. He was prepared to go down in a sinking car and had the resources to stay alive for a couple of hours if, he said, “it came to that.” It never came to that.

“But it was an experience that I will never forget,” he said.

More experiments in sinking cars followed and he and his support crew established the “how” of sinking vehicles, and redefined the sinking time from a single period (hit water, sink) to three phases:

  1. Flotation–vehicle floats for 15 to 63 seconds before water reaches the bottom of the side windows;
  2. Sinking–the period until the vehicle is completely under water, but before water fills it completely; and
  3. Submerged–the vehicle is full of water and several feet below the surface.

The distinction into three phases, and resultant survival instructions, contrasted with the widely held belief, enforced by public education, about what to do if your vehicle plunges into water and begins to sink.

 “Now we’re telling them, “˜Don’t sit in the car with the windows up and wait for the car to fill with water and equalize the pressure before opening the door to leave,'” Giesbrecht said. “We’re trying to reverse the “˜stay in your car until the vehicle fills with water’ and that’s very hard to do. The wrong thing was taught, and now we are asking people to erase that from their memory.”

Giesbrecht’s research resulted in the publication of four research papers and one review paper. They attracted the attention of Jay Dornseif, Program Administrator, Fire, Priority Dispatch Corp. (PDC). In 2010, Giesbrecht and the Academy began a series of meetings to help advance the original Sinking Vehicle Protocol that the IAED had released in 2001.

Following the Academy’s process, Giesbrecht and the IAED began a series of meetings in 2010 that aided in modifying the existing Sinking Vehicle Protocol, directing the calltaker to give Pre-Arrival Instructions (PAIs), focusing attention on getting out of the vehicle fast. This became four steps written into the Academy’s protocol:

  1. Seatbelts (unfastened);
  2. Windows (open);
  3. Children released from restraints and brought close to an adult; and
  4. Out, with children exiting first from the oldest to the youngest.

Earlier instructions, which are still part of the protocol, suggest the use of a heavy object to break the side window and/or to kick the side window; electric windows normally should work for 30-60 seconds, Giesbrecht said.

Calling 9-1-1

Giesbrecht is of the opinion that calling 9-1-1 actually steals precious seconds away from the caller’s chance for survival. Yet, he realizes, the call in a state of panic is inevitable.

“More and more people have cell phones and they all know to call 9-1-1 in an emergency,” he said. “So, yes, it makes sense. If dispatchers can teach you how to give CPR, they can tell you how to get out of your sinking vehicle.”

Going by the results of his initial research findings, Giesbrecht organized Operation ALIVE (Automobile submersion: Lessons In Vehicle Escape) to formulate escape and emergency response strategies for the public. He believes instructions–similar to the Academy’s PAIs–for what to do if inside a sinking vehicle should evolve into the “stop, drop, and roll’ message of the 21st century.

“Everybody knows stop, drop, and roll, yet the odds of being in a sinking vehicle are far greater than catching your clothes on fire,” he said. “In a perfect world, if every kid in North America hears the message ‘Seatbelts, Windows, Out,’ in a generation we’d be done.”

More recently, Giesbrecht has worked with the IAED to enhance instructions to escape from a vehicle trapped in floodwaters. While the goals are the same–to get out of the water as quickly as possible–his technique relied on logic over experimentation.

“It’s tough to study a vehicle in floodwater,” Giesbrecht said. “If I want to sink a car in a pond, who cares? With floodwater, you have to wait for an actual flood and it’s very difficult to get permission to drive into a flooded road.”


1. Smith A. (January 2003.) Meet Prof. Popsicle. Outside Magazine. Retrieved Dec. 4, 2017, from https://www.outsideonline.com/1821211/meet-prof-popsicle“‹

2. The Provincial Court of Manitoba. (Nov. 28, 2005.) The Fatality Inquiries Act Report by Provincial Judge on Inquest Respecting the Death of: Calvin Sean Wood. ManitobaCourts.mb.ca. Retrieved Dec. 4, 2017, from www.manitobacourts.mb.ca/site/assets/files/1051/wood_calvin_inquest_report.pdf.

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