Training Days: New Vehicle Technology

Part Seven

Article and photos by Tom Kiurski

A training coordinator should train his firefighters so they are ready to respond to a myriad of incidents. At times, the job seems overwhelming, but sometimes things fall into place nicely. Living in Michigan, we have to contend with snow, ice, and heating equipment problems, but the fact that the automobile industry has a huge presence in the Detroit area helps out from time to time.

At one of our practical Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training classes, I met a reserve police officer for our city who also worked for Daimler Chrysler. He asked if we needed any cars to use for extrication practice. Although the offer was appreciated, I replied that a local towing company brings us quite a few cars, and takes them away when we are through with them. But he meant brand-new cars. As he elaborated on his proposal, I got busy coming up with the different useful drill evolutions for the firefighters.

I did some research on seat belts, three-point harnesses, and air bags. The idea for the automobile seat belt came out in 1955; most American car manufacturers made front seatbelts standard by 1964 and rear seatbelts standard equipment in 1968. The air bag was originally intended to replace the three-point harness, which occupants had not wearing as frequently as had been expected. The air bag would inflate automatically; occupants needed to do nothing to deploy it.

In the drill, firefighters pull up to three brand-new vehicles and instructors discuss current vehicle seat belt and air bag technology.

In the standard inertial seat belt system, during heavy braking, the belts lock in place, keeping occupants from moving too far forward from the seat. In newer vehicles, a system “fires” a charge that pulls the occupant back into the seat. This charge makes a loud bang as it fires. Our apparatus division rigged the firing mechanism so that it would go off during our training evolution, providing an excellent learning experience.


(1) Air bags can activate from many different locations on today’s vehicles. Look for labeling and research it; the air bags don’t always come out of the labeled area. Click to enlarge

The air bag system discussion covered firing mechanisms, the newer technology of dual inflation modules, occupant-sensing air bag inflators, and the numerous possible air bag locations. The cars were inspected for any markings indicating the location of air bags and how they are denoted in the vehicle. Many of the older paramedics in the class remembered being taught that a spiderweb-pattern break in the window was indicative of the patient’s head striking the windshield; however, it can now be assumed that the air bags are just as likely to cause such damage.

This class concluded with another stunning visual. Our apparatus division hooked up an air bag to deploy as participants all took positions to watch. Watching may not be the best term–the whole inflation process takes place in less than a tenth of a second!


(2) Before executing a cut, personnel should pull back the trim and inspect the area where they plan to cut. You certainly don’t want to cut through any of the air bag components! Click to enlarge

Acquiring the new vehicles enabled us to study the safety features that may impact our firefighters on the emergency scene. The technology that goes into the new vehicles is fascinating, and I am glad I got a chance to present this information during our training days.

Tom Kiurski is training coordinator, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book, Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999), is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.

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