Extrication Zone, Firefighter Training, Firefighting

National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System: Airbag Hazards Are Not Just for Extrication

One of the first lessons we learn about working with vehicles in an emergency situation is the hazards of the safety systems engineered into them. These systems are designed to keep the occupants safe, but we have found that many potentially life threatening injuries can occur to responders if standard precautions are not taken. These safety systems can present a threat any time the vehicle is compromised, the most common being after an accident.

This week’s featured report identifies an airbag deployment after a car fire. The fire damage involved the engine compartment and passenger dash area. Although the damage is not defined, it appears that the electrical system in the vehicle was at least partially intact. This report is an example of how a vehicle safety system can rapidly become a firefighter’s worst enemy.

“My engine company was dispatched to a vehicle fire in a convenience store parking lot. We arrived to find a 1990 [vehicle name omitted] with the engine compartment involved. After extinguishing the engine compartment fire, heavy smoke started rolling out of the passenger side dash area. We were able to quickly extinguish the remaining fire in the dash.

While my engine crew was loading hose, I was collecting information for my report and to give to the on-call investigator who was enroute. I heard a police officer ask how many miles were on the vehicle, so I thought the investigator might also need that information.

We had not disconnected the battery and the fire had been out for at least 15 minutes. I leaned into the driver’s seat, with my feet still on the pavement outside and put the key in the ignition. I turned it and no dash lights came on. As I started to turn the key back to the off position, the driver’s side airbag deployed. I felt it hit and then heard the “pop”. The next thing I knew, I was stumbling around outside the vehicle, my ears were ringing, and I felt like I had been hit in the jaw by a truck.”

When you consider the training you’ve had involving car fires, there are many tactics included. Observing the 45 degree rule, securing the vehicle, and watching for traffic are only a few of the procedures that are reinforced at every incident. On many of these responses, we walk away from the incident without the slightest noticeable hazard.

Airbags are not the only hazard we face at a car fire. Take a moment to consider the following topics where car fires create a hazard for responders.

  1. Do you always wear an SCBA when attacking a car fire? Is this a policy of your department, or a personal preference?
  2. Hydraulic cylinder overpressure during a fire is a significant threat to anyone close to a car fire. Do you always approach a car fire from an angle to the front or rear of the vehicle?
  3. Even though there is significant damage to a vehicle during a fire, do you consider disconnecting the battery after the vehicle cools?
  4. Discuss with your crew how to determine when there is evidence of a flammable metal and the tactics necessary to extinguish the fire.
  5. While the crew works to extinguish the fire, is it a policy to make sure the roadway is blocked from other motorists?  

Many resources on the internet provide video footage of car fire and airbag incidents. The most poignant resource available is the first hand account of these types of calls from the people that have experienced them. Take a moment to share your experience with firefighters around the world by submitting a report on www.firefighternearmiss.com. For more on the value of firefighter near-miss reporting, CLICK HERE.

Note: The questions posed by the reviewers are designed to generate discussion and thought in the name of promoting firefighter safety. They are not intended to pass judgment on the actions and performance of individuals in the reports.