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As new Hybrid Vehicles Arrive, Firefighters Make Rescue Adjustments

Even as the drapes were pulled off new Hybrid models at the Los Angeles and Detroit Auto Show events in the first weeks of January 2006, firefighters across the country are just beginning to understand that traffic accident rescue methods need to be adjusted when dealing with Hybrid technology. In addition to other rescue-related risks, hybrids add electrocution to the risk-mix.

Manufacturers of hybrid vehicles, including Toyota, Honda, Ford and others, all incorporate the same basic components in their cars and trucks: a gas tank, an electrical generator, a high-voltage battery, and for safety purposes, air bags. Early electric vehicles ran a minor risk of battery explosion, but new Hybrids typically do not. The real risk relates to electricity itself. Hybrid batteries deliver up to 650 volts, enough to kill a human being. In addition, should the couplings for batteries become severed, free-flowing electricity can ignite leaking fuel or other combustibles, just as might occur if an electrical wire were to fall during a storm or other accident.

During a rescue, firefighters must locate and disconnect the batteries in the vehicles involved. Most manufacturers label their high-voltage cables with orange, red, or on occasion, yellow coloring. Locating batteries sounds easy, but often becomes complicated as most are located behind or under the back passenger seat. In addition. the location of airbags can also interfere, notably if side impact airbags are deployed. Some hybrid vehicles can be purchased with up to seven airbags.

Firefighters often don’t recognize that the vehicle they’re dealing with is a hybrid. While most of these cars and trucks do have insignia that promote their power plants, many look exactly like normally powered vehicles. Only cars like the Toyota Prius are immediately recognized as being a hybrid. Many traffic accidents occur at night and in bad weather, further complicating the risk to rescue personnel.

When a fire engine arrives at an accident scene, the primary job of the paramedics and/or firefighters on-board is to locate and secure the driver and all passengers from each vehicle involved. If the vehicle is inverted, is in a dark area (such as over the side of a freeway embankment), or is partially obscured by an object or another vehicle, it can be extremely easy for anyone to miss the importance of checking for “hybrid status” in the initial seconds of the rescue process.

Worse, there is no standard regarding the placement of kill switches, access panels or the batteries themselves. All hybrids do not have on/off or kill switches. Honda hybrids do include a kill switch, but its location varies, often located behind the back seats or in the trunk. The Toyota Prius has a removable circuit breaker on the side of the high-voltage battery. A firefighter or rescue working can remove it to cut power from the batteries.

Currently, there are no formal policies regarding hybrid rescues on a national level and local departments are evaluating how to implement rescue practices on a department-by-department basis. However, State Farm Insurance, the largest automobile insurer in the Unites States is beginning a national hybrid rescue education program. Initially, State Farm will conduct live, interactive web broadcasts from its education and research facility. And manufacturers are getting involved as well. Toyota and Honda offer printed guides that show where the batteries are in their hybrid vehicles and how to disconnect power. Toyota is also offering to do on-location demos at fire stations, upon request. The real world risks are that some occupants and firefighters both may be injured or lose their lives as new rescue techniques are developed.

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