Hybrids and Emergency First Responders

Overemphasized As a Hazard

Now that hundreds more hybrid cars take to our roads each day, one might wonder if public safety agencies are overly concerned about all of those high-voltage battery packs zipping along at freeway speeds.

Not too much. Turns out that a good amount of training—and, in case of fire, lots of water—should be most of what a first responder needs upon arriving at an accident involving a hybrid.

Knowing a few basic things about hybrids—the location and construction of battery compartments, the color (orange) used to designate high voltage cables, and the location of fuses that will isolate the electrical system—should be enough to help first responders save lives and remain safe in the process. Removing the ignition key and disconnecting a vehicle’s 12-volt battery are common first-responder tasks in conventional vehicles already. Performing that task on a hybrid disables its high-voltage controller.

“At this point, it’s totally overemphasized as a hazard,” said Ron Moore, a battalion chief in the McKinney, Texas, fire department, in an article published in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Hampton Roads, Va. "There is a potential that we never had before, but the engineers on both Honda and Toyota cars have done such a tremendous job of engineering and safety concerns that if we’re better educated responders, it will be no big deal."

Preparation and Common Sense

Firefighters have coped with advancing automotive technologies for years, other publications have noted, and they will skillfully deal with hybrid cars. Airbags presented such a concern in the late 80s and early 90s, and firefighting knowledge and technology has easily kept pace.

They’ll cope the old-fashioned way—with training, and lots of it, said Chief Ike Beal of the Key Largo, Fl., Fire Department. That training needs to start from, literally, knowing a hybrid from a "regular" car, he said.

"The fire service must identify a hybrid and retrain their thinking that just because you don’t hear an engine running, that the vehicle is safe," Beal said. Otherwise you could have a vehicle in "golf cart mode," where a driver taking their foot of the brake causes the car to move silently – something all hybrid drivers, yet few firefighters, have experienced!

Moore, who is the University of Extrication editor for Firehouse magazine, wrote that extinguishing a hybrid vehicle fire wouldn’t differ dramatically from quenching a fire in a non-hybrid car. The tool of choice? Copious amounts of water, which will both eliminate the radiant heat and also cool the hybrid’s metal battery box and the plastic cells inside the battery pack. Nothing more sophisticated than that.

Extracting someone from a damaged hybrid wouldn’t be much different than from a conventional vehicle, Moore was quoted as saying in the Virginian-Pilot article. He said he and a colleague obtained two Toyota Prius vehicles when they first came out. They pried apart one and burned the other, and both behaved very similarly to conventional vehicles.

In short, a little preparation and common sense should mean that hybrid cars can be treated much like any other car on the road in an accident. Besides, Chief Beal notes, the next automotive innovation will be much more challenging. "Wait until the fuel cell vehicles arrive in several years," he said. “Hydrogen is going to present many more problems than gasoline hybrids do.”

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