Diffusing The New ‘Hot' Cars

| 29 Sep 2011 | 08:13

Hybrid vehicles may save on gas, but their powerful batteries add new challenges for first responders. Firefighters and other first responders will tell you that risk is always a part of what they do when they come upon an accident. And the way you minimize that risk, they will add, is to understand what you are up against by training for it. That’s what is happening in fire departments across New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, as more and more drivers turn to vehicles that can get upwards of 45 miles to the gallon running on alternative energy sources. The problems are these: • Depending on the model, the batteries in hybrid vehicles can carry 144 to 650 volts, levels that experts say can injure a person. By comparison, the electrical systems in conventional cars use 12-volt batteries. That’s an issue in using extrication equipment like the “Jaws of Life.” • The layout for the operating systems can vary from vehicle to vehicle, manufacturer to manufacturer. “Every engine is different and every training session is different,” said Eric Slater, the assistant fire chief in Ogdensburg, N.J. “We had classes with Honda before but not Toyota. Now we see that Toyota is different. It’s tough. Basically, I will keep stuff like this in the fire engine. Then I will be able to check my notes.” • It’s difficult to immediately identify a hybrid. Manufacturers are not required to indicate on the outside of a vehicle that the car is a hybrid. The cars are marked on their doors or on the trunk usually, but often doors and lettering flies off in an accident. All of the cars are marked under the hood. Future Toyota models, meanwhile, will have external hybrid symbols. “For safety, you have to identify the vehicle and know what to do,” said Jeff Strauss, the first lieutenant of the Fredon, N.J., Fire Department. “The high voltage you are dealing with is another dilemma to figure out. But the last thing you need is another victim.” History Honda introduced the first gasoline-powered hybrid vehicle in the United States in 1990; Toyota followed a year later with its Prius. Ford and Chevrolet have followed. There are approximately 200,000 hybrids on American roads today. That’s a very small percentage of the types of cars and trucks driven in the country. For instance, of the 16.7 million cars and trucks sold in this country in 2003, 43,435, or less than half of one percent, were hybrids, according to a recent story in the Arizona Republic. But the number is expected to increase as manufacturers from Ford to Lexus to Saturn introduce new models - and as the price of gasoline increases. Toyota is the largest hybrid car manufacturer, selling the most of their alternative-fuel vehicles in California, Florida and Arizona, according to Tom Mincer, general counsel for the Rosado Group, which operates 11 car dealerships in the Pike County, Pa., area. “Hybrids,” he said, “don’t sell well in the Northeast because they lack power.” None of the fire departments interviewed for this article have come upon an accident involving a hybrid vehicle. Still, there’s need for preparation. “We have to be trained to know just what equipment is safe to use around these vehicles and what precautions we must take if we have to rescue occupants from a hybrid car,” said Dingman, Pa., Fire Chief Bill Mikulak are a recent Dingman Township Board of Supervisors meeting. Mincer, who also is chairman of the board of supervisors, said the Rosadao Group would be willing to supply a hybrid vehicle and a certified hybrid mechanic to the Dingman Firehouse for inspection and training. Similar exchanges are going on across the area. Dave Aroune, the service manager at Toyota dealership in Newton, N.J., will be attending manufacturer training classes this month. Later this year, he added, the dealership will offer safety training programs every three months. “Firefighters really don’t need to be intimidated,” Aroune said. “We can’t let our technology interfere. You just have to be aware.” The challenges Eugene Berry, the assistant chief with the Marshall’s Creek Fire Department in Monroe County, Pa., is a high-school science teacher by profession. He’s also the state certified fire training instructor (including vehicle extrication) since 1998 and has taught in Pike, Monroe, Lackawanna, Wayne, Lycoming, Schuykill, Montgomery and Bucks counties. He estimates he’s “cut up” more than 200 cars, school buses and trucks in that time, but never a hybrid. “We don’t get new cars (anymore),” he said in a recent interview, “unless it’s the real thing.” The Pennsylvania state Fire Academy and Health Department provide curriculum for 48-hour training classes, although at the moment, there’s very little information on hybrids included in state program. Berry acknowledges how quickly technology advances. He said the first thing he tells his classes is this: “What I teach you in 2006 may be outdated by 2007.” “I could spend eight hours a day on the internet and still not be up to date,” he added. Nonetheless, he noted several of the critical issues involving hybrids and emergency personnel who might come upon an accident scene. • Electric motors are often inaudible when running. Motors have separate shut-offs and the electric motors may be “hot” up to five minutes after they’ve been shut off. • Cars are supposed to have stickers on the rear side windows, indicating they are hybrids, but stickers can be peeled off or fall off. • Batteries can be located anywhere in a car except under the driver’s seat. Batteries combine to up to 1,000 volts, their power cables are heavily insulated, often labeled and almost universally colored orange. They are not grounded to the body, “intentionally,” he said because they are subject to being pinched or crushed in a crash which could ground them. Berry also noted that Hurst, the manufacturer of “jaws of life” cutting tools, is marketing a specially insulated model because of the gas-electric hybrids. Berry said he read two training updates on the hybrids, which contradicted one another on the shock potential from the batteries. One said “potentially fatal;” another didn’t. “Our biggest fear,” he said, is what we don’t know about (inside the car). Nobody said this job was easy. It’s not.” Jerry Goldberg contributed to this article