VEHICLES IN WATER

BY ALEXANDER D. LOBETO

According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, from 1996 to 2001 (2001 data were preliminary and not final), there were 7,997 crashes in the state in which the first or subsequent harmful event was indicated as “ran off road into water.” In these crashes, there were 6,947 people injured and 367 fatalities. These data come from Florida law enforcement agency traffic accident reports. These incredible numbers demand that the fire service enhance its extrication skills to include removing trapped victims when their vehicles enter bodies of water.

Several items to consider when extricating viable patients from passenger vehicles are detailed below. For additional information concerning initial rescue operations of victims in water, see “Engine Company Operations: Vehicle Accidents in Water,” Fire Engineering, February 2003.

HOW VEHICLES REACT IN WATER

Let’s begin with a vehicle’s inherent tendencies when it leaves the roadway and enters a body of water. It does not take much to get a vehicle off the road. The rain from a normal afternoon thunderstorm in Florida is enough to cause vehicle tires to lose contact with the road and hydroplane, in which the vehicle actually rides on a layer of water between the tires and the road surface. This phenomenon makes moving thousands of pounds of metal as easy as if the vehicle were on ice.

Once the vehicle is in the water, common sense says that if the windows are rolled up and the vehicle is intact enough to hold air, it will float for a minute or so. Even if a section of the vehicle does come to a rest on the bottom, other sections containing entrapped air (e.g., the passenger compartment or the trunk) may continue to float.

Now consider that if the vehicle with a front-mounted engine enters the water front-first, the front will sink first from the engine’s weight. If the water is deep enough, the vehicle may rotate and come to rest on one side or eventually rotate to rest on its roof, a process hastened by the movement of occupants. A vehicle can float in water that is anywhere from a few inches to a couple of feet deep. This is especially important to understand when attempting rescue operations in water. The fact that the vehicle’s buoyancy can allow it to float in water may allow rescuers to access a vehicle quickly and move it or tow it to shore.


1. Photo by author.

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RESCUER SAFETY

A primary concern during operations, rescuer safety must be foremost in the minds of all emergency personnel on-scene. If we do not operate safely, the chances for victim survival are reduced. When performing extrication in or around bodies of water, certain personal protective equipment must be adapted to protect the rescuers. To say the least, bunker gear is not conducive to working around water. Bunker boots, pants, and jackets are bulky, restrict movement, absorb water, and will greatly increase the weight of a rescuer, jeopardizing his safety. All rescuers should wear personal flotation devices (PFDs) when working in or near water.


The basic complement of personal protective equipment for water-based extrication can include a Type III/V PFD, a whistle, a flashlight, an attached strobe light, a sturdy nonfolding knife, a center punch, Neoprene wetsuits, water booties, eye protection, gloves, a water helmet, and floating rope. All Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue lead engines carry water rescue kits with PFDs, knife, whistle, strobe, throw bag, water rope, goggles, flotation device, and operations checklist (see photo 1, Figure 1).

A major safety concern that is sometimes overlooked is your members’ swimming ability. What programs does your department offer to determine and improve rescuers’ swimming skills? Personal egos may also compromise safety when personnel of limited or nonexistent swimming ability do not inform their superiors of this or even of their fear of water. As with any technical rescue, never go beyond your level of training or competency.

SCENE SIZE-UP AND RESPONSE

The different factors that may be involved will require a size-up approach and response that are distinct from normal on-road vehicle extrication situations. Vehicle entrapment in the water presents different problems to conquer. Particular size-up considerations include the type of vehicle involved, its weight, and its flotation capability. A heavier vehicle with fewer available air pockets has less flotation capability than a lighter vehicle with more air pockets. Below are some size-up aspects to consider.

  • Body of water. What are the type, conditions, and depth of body of water? Is it a swimming pool or muck-filled retention pond?
  • Hazards. What natural or man-made hazards are present? Dangerous marine life? Cold water? Pollution? Fuel from the vehicle?
  • Vehicle condition. Is the vehicle floating? It is easy to move floating vehicles to a more secure location. However, if the vehicle is submerged, you must be realistic about survivability rates. Develop a time window within your agency to determine whether it will be a rescue or a body recovery.
  • Water access. Are there angled embankments to contend with? What access problems are there?
  • Intitial dispatch. What is your initial dispatch for these types of calls? Do you have enough primary resources?


2. Photos by Ted Adent.

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VEHICLE STABILIZATION

In stabilization, your primary objective is to place any occupants in a secure zone in which they are kept out of immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) situations. In vehicle extrication from water, this means keeping the occupants’ heads above water to prevent drowning until they are removed from the water and extrication is complete.

Some stabilization techniques work very well on land; we train on these and usually have the appropriate equipment. But what do we do in water? What works? Are your techniques and tools appropriate? Consider the following equipment for stabilizing vehicles in water.

  • Low-pressure air bags for lifting.
  • Static and pneumatic struts, jacks, and wood cribbing for stabilizing and shoring.
  • Air bags for salvage.
  • Tow vehicles or apparatus equipped with winches.
  • Air-filled 21/2- and three-inch fire hose.
  • Rope systems with mechanical advantage for lifting or pulling.


5. Photo by author.

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EVALUATING TECHNIQUES

Recently, Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue and a neighboring department conducted joint extrication training exercises using an actual four-door, compact car which we placed in a retention pond to evaluate various stabilization techniques. We used low-pressure air bags and static struts to stabilize the vehicle, using the air bags to float and lift the vehicle up and out of the water, and then placed the struts in place for complete vehicle stabilization.

We secured two low-pressure air bags with hook straps under the front fender. The hooks were secured to the handles on the bags, making a U shape. We inflated the bags and stabilized the vehicle, preventing further sinking (see photo 2).


6. Photo by Ted Adent.

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A single low-pressure air bag was secured to the hood with a hook strap attached through the bag handles and the hooks attached to both front fender wells. The bag was then inflated, and the vehicle’s front end was raised (see photo 3).

We used static struts without low-pressure air bags for stabilization. The vehicle’s front end was pressed down into the pond bottom (see photo 4).

Other stabilization methods include tow trucks or apparatus equipped with winches, air-inflated fire hose (21/2- and three-inch), and conventional rope hauling systems to secure the vehicle and pull it to shore (see photo 5). One simple technique involves holding or lifting the vehicle up by hand while more secure stabilization is put in place. As was discussed above, vehicles will float under certain circumstances and are easy to maneuver. This method may be unconventional but can maintain a victim in the secure zone.

We simulated a reverse roof flap, which first required that we stabilize the vehicle with a single low-pressure airbag underneath it. In a reverse roof flap, two relief cuts are made on opposite sides of the roof behind the B posts. The C posts are cut as low as possible, leaving the rear window glass intact. The bottom of the rear glass is cut completely across, and the roof section is flapped forward (see photo 6).

In an actual separate recovery, refloating bags were used to raise a full-size van. Although they are primarily used for recovery because of setup time, refloating bags do have their place in viable rescue scenarios depending on the depth of vehicle submersion (see photo 7).

Two PFDs secured to a straight ladder make it buoyant enough to access a vehicle and move equipment or victims (see photo 8).


7. Photo by Ken Hollins.

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8. Photo by author.

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TOOLS: PRACTICAL AND IMPRACTICAL

Below is a brief review of tools often used in land-based extrication operations. However, some may not be appropriate for use in water extrication.

  • Hand tools. Glass saws, center punches, screwdrivers, striking tools, come-alongs, and prying tools are all useful. Back to basics! Remember when only large departments or those with vast budgets had hydraulic or pneumatic extrication tools? These tools and their proper use are a must in water rescues. Practice with them, but remember that, depending on the force needed, some striking tools will be less effective in water. Try swinging a baseball bat underwater. One of the best methods we have used in training and in actual operations is to take glass with a hand tool such as a center punch or screwdriver and then search the vehicle. Never take these tools for granted.
  • Pneumatic tools. Air chisels work very well on shore, but in the water they present a problem because of the way they work. Air must be moved from the piston to create the cutting tool’s rapid movement; this is affected by the water pressure, which increases with depth. The tool’s speed will be increasingly compromised as depth increases, inhibiting effective cutting.

When using pneumatic tools connected to SCBA cylinders, remember that steel cylinders will sink when 100-percent full but will float at 50-percent capacity. Aluminum and fiberglass cylinders will float regardless of how full they are. These flotation qualities may be an asset in water. On land, an SCBA cylinder may roll around or need to be secured or carried during operations. In water, they may float and make it easier to access the vehicle.

  • Hydraulic tools. Modern hydraulic tools may be used in water situations, but consider the weight of the tool, especially if the rescuer is not balanced on the bottom of the water or atop the vehicle. Review and adhere to manufacturer recommendations before taking the tools into water.
  • Electric tools. Unless you are absolutely sure there will be no water contact, do not use these tools near water!


9. Photos by Mark Bandstra.

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WINDOWS

The windows may be fixed in place or can be opened, closed, or removed. They may be manually or electrically opened and closed. The glass may be laminated safety glass, thermal pane, tempered glass, or synthetic polycarbonate. The term enhanced protective glass (EPG) describes the newest class of laminated side and rear window glass for vehicles.

  • Laminated safety glass. Two or more layers of glass are held together with a plastic (polyvinyl butyral, or PVB) center between the glass pieces. It is used in windshields and some rear windows. This glass may be forced with striking tools to create a purchase point and then may be cut with glass or reciprocating saws. Removing the glass from its frame is another option.
  • Tempered glass is used for side windows; when broken, it shatters into small, relatively dull pieces. This glass can be struck or removed entirely.
  • Thermal pane glass is a double layer of glass bonded together with foam around the edges, containing a void between the two pieces to create soundproofing and security enhancement. This type of glass is commonly found in residential or commercial windows. Two strikes with a tool may be needed for this glass. You can also cut or remove the entire window.
  • Bulletproof glass consists of a single layer of synthetic polycarbonate material sandwiched between two pieces of extra thick, extra strong glass. This process is commonly used to bulletproof vehicles. Your best bet is to go around this type of window. I’m sure the President would understand!

You will probably be faced with enhanced protective glass in higher end vehicles. They are out there, and rescuers must be aware of their construction features and how to get through them. If you are faced with them, they may be intact since they are designed to be very strong to provide security and soundproofing. This strength may prove to be an asset in keeping the vehicle from flooding.

If time permits, lowering electric windows is a quick and easy method for extrication. But often the electric controls to these windows are compromised from being in water, and opening them this way is not an option. We have had instances where batteries have gone dead in vehicles on land with people in them who were “trapped” for a few minutes because the recessed door locks and windows would not operate. In water, this might be a good thing if all windows are closed.

Regardless, forcing windows is not difficult if you study the different types of window glass and what it takes to get by them. The key is to know how to do it safely, quickly, and easily.

One technique to force tempered side windows is extremely effective in water and requires no striking. Place a large screwdriver or nonfolding knife in between the window and the door and pull the top of the tool to create force on the glass (see photos 9, 10).

VICTIM ACCESS AND EXTRICATION

At an extrication incident involving a vehicle in water, once it is determined that it is a rescue operation, develop a plan of action to access and remove the victim(s) from the vehicle. The plan must consider the vehicle location, whether rescuers can access it safely, and if this is within their level of training and resources. We will review several objectives and priority options.

  • Create a secure zone for the victim(s).
  • Develop priorities for extrication.
  • Use existing openings.
  • Enlarge existing openings.
  • Create new openings.

As noted above, your primary goal is to create or move the victim to a secure zone where that person is out of an IDLH situation; once a secure zone is established, extrication can begin.

Extrication options include using or enlarging existing openings or creating new openings. Basically, the techniques are the same as those used at a land-based incident—forcing doors, displacing dashes, cutting roofs, and other operations. The only difference is in knowing which tools will work in water and what effect water has on the particular technique.

For example, forcing a door that is underwater and with little or no water in the passenger compartment is much more difficult because of the water pressure. A hydraulic tool certainly compensates for the pressure, but what do you do then? The door might require a stronger means to prop it open than it would need on land. One option is to pry the door by placing the spreader tips on the window frame up against the roof and on the bottom of the window. Extend the spreader tips and, in many cases, you can open the door without going for the lock or hinges. The spreaders may be kept in place to hold the door open.

The first option is to use existing openings, which could be as simple as “try before you pry”—a door or window may easily be opened and a victim removed. If this is not possible, the next option is to enlarge existing openings by forcing doors or removing glass, for example. The final option, creating new openings, includes removing roofs, displacing dashboards, or burrowing through rear seats through the trunk.

LESSONS LEARNED AND REINFORCED

Extrication from vehicles in water is a very dangerous and time-consuming operation. Very little information has been gathered on the subject. Many times these incidents are body recoveries. The best way we can improve the odds of rescue is to develop, study, and practice various techniques. Emergency workers are the ones faced with the task of rescue and must be committed to improving these techniques with practice.

  • Safety. Rescuer safety is the first priority! Our job is to make the situation better by using safe procedures, not worse by using unsafe ones.
  • Training. Ensure adequate training, study, and research.
  • Secure zone. Establish a “secure zone” for the victim or victims, if necessary, prior to extrication.
  • Priorities. Identify and implement priorities for extrication. Use existing openings, enlarge existing openings, or create new openings.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Firefighter Steve Plath of Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue, who was unexpectedly taken from us.

ALEXANDER D. LOBETO is a captain for Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue in Manatee County, Florida, where he has served since 1987. He has an associate’s degree in fire science and an advanced certificate in fire department management, both from Manatee Community College. He is an instructor with Starfire Training Systems, the FDIC H.O.T. school bus extrication team, and the Sarasota County Technical Institute Fire Academy.

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