Automakers are packing cars and trucks with new devices to increase safety for motorists, such as air bags that can fire off twice or are located in doors or roofs, but the same equipment poses dangers to rescuers, who often aren’t aware the hazards even exist, the Washington Post reports.
“Pre-tensioning” seat belts, which use a charge of gunpowder to yank against an occupant during impact, can explode in the hands of a firefighter working to cut someone free. A retractable roll bar that springs up behind the seats in some convertibles can cause serious injuries to an unsuspecting paramedic. Metal detonators tucked into rooftops to inflate side-curtain air bags can go off like missiles if cut into by rescuers, firing into the cabin of the vehicle.
Cars today are “a loaded bomb waiting to try to hurt us as responders,” said Lt. Mark McKinney, a vehicle rescue specialist with the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue.
Emergency workers are used to dealing with the standard hazards of gas tanks and 12-volt batteries, but technology is changing so quickly that many cannot keep up with what’s on the street, from cars with as many as a dozen airbags to gas-electric hybrid vehicles with batteries powerful enough to electrocute a person.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is asking emergency workers to report injuries or safety concerns about air bags and other vehicle equipment and has asked the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians to collect the same information from its members nationwide. The agency is trying to “start putting together the puzzle of what’s going on and what it would take to resolve the issue,” said Jeff Michael, director of NHTSA’s office of impaired driving and occupant protection.