Firefighter training; photo courtesy General Motors of Canada
Firefighter training; photo courtesy General Motors of Canada. Click image to enlarge

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By Jil McIntosh

Toronto, Ontario – These days, cars and trucks are safer than they’ve ever been, thanks to such innovations as crumple zones, airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, and high-strength steel. But drivers still crash them, and when they do, those safety features become part of a firefighter’s process in pulling the car apart.

All of these features must be taken into account, and first responders are continually upgrading their skills, working in-house and with vehicle manufacturers, to stay on top of the latest features. That’s the job of Mark Bardgett, a captain with Toronto Fire Services’ Professional Development & Training, who is constantly gathering and teaching information on new vehicle technologies.

“It doesn’t take longer to get someone out, but we look at different ways when we assess wrecks, and determine what is the best way to defeat the structure,” Bardgett said. “It’s not like television. We have many different ways to gain access to our patients by moving metal.”

The patient – the first responder’s term for the person being removed from the wreck – is always the priority. Firefighters follow a system that requires them to first stabilize the patient, and then the vehicle. This involves shoring up the car with “cribs,” wooden structures that prevent it from rolling or shifting. That’s essential, because when large pieces of metal such as a door or roof are removed, the car can “float” on its suspension due to the missing weight. Any vehicle movement has the potential to impede the rescue or create a dangerous situation.

Toronto Fire Captain Mark Bardgett; photo by Jil McIntosh
Toronto Fire Captain Mark Bardgett; photo by Jil McIntosh. Click image to enlarge

Those basics haven’t changed, but vehicles have, and fire services across the country are constantly learning and updating their skills as cars become more sophisticated.

“Some vehicles have five layers of steel and reinforced pillars,” Bardgett said. “If you cut it, you can see that there are layers of overriding steel, and we teach our crews to work with it. If hydraulics don’t work, we use air chisels or reciprocating saws. If the method isn’t successful, we always have a ‘Plan B’ in store.”

Firefighters routinely cut through vehicle structures to gain access, but they never simply chop away where it looks most viable. Instead, they perform a step called “peel and peek” to determine what’s lurking under the surface. “We remove interior trim, looking for any types of gas inflators or pyrotechnic devices used for safety systems, or for brake and fuel lines that can run along the rocker panels,” Bardgett said. “We realize (that) because there are so many different car manufacturers, before we make any commitment to cut, we take away interior trim. There’s no blind cutting; that’s not an accepted practice. It only takes a matter of seconds.”

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