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Rescue workers learn dos, don'ts of hybrid vehicles

March 2nd, 2014 2:09 pm by Max Hrenda

Rescue workers learn dos, don'ts of hybrid vehicles

Duane Throckmorton discusses safety precautions for the Toyota Prius during his seminar at the Fall Branch Volunteer Fire Department station on Feb. 25. (Max Hrenda/Johnson City Press)

FALL BRANCH — As hybrid vehicles continue to establish their place in the automotive marketplace, discussions about their reliability, low emissions and fuel economy became more common.

Discussions about safely handling the vehicles, according to Duane Throckmorton, were more scarce, particularly for emergency workers who respond to automobile accidents.

“Safety has always been a priority,” Throckmorton said. “But a lot of these local areas don’t get that type of training.”

To help local emergency personnel enhance their understanding of the workings — and potential dangers — of hybrid vehicles, Throckmorton, who works as an instructor for NAPA’s Autotech program in Columbus, Ohio, conducted a hybrid safety seminar Tuesday.

Representatives from nine fire departments located across Washington, Sullivan and Carter counties, along with the Washington County/Johnson City EMS, were on hand to take part in Throckmorton’s seminar at the Fall Branch Volunteer Fire Department’s station at 106 Ruritan Road.

FBVFD Operations Chief Jim Dawson, who helped organize the event, said he was told about the class from the owner of Fall Branch’s NAPA Auto Parts store.

“He had been through this class, and thought it would be beneficial for the fire departments,” Dawson said. “We went from there, as far as getting in touch with the instructor and brought it to our county fire association. Everybody was in agreement it would be a good training class.”

When working the scene of an accident, emergency personnel have no shortage of things to keep in mind. Should the accident involve a hybrid, however, Throckmorton said there are other factors that need to be considered before attempting a rescue. Specifically, those factors revolve around hybrid vehicles’ electrical systems.

“The voltages in these vehicles can reach anywhere from 300 to 400 volts, and 100 to 200 amps,” Throckmorton said. “Everything on a hybrid vehicle is powered by electricity.”

Throckmorton said rescue workers may find themselves coming into contact with the electrical components specific to hybrids more frequently.

“I did a Google search of hybrid vehicles within a 50-mile radius of Fall Branch; there are 7,000 registered hybrid vehicles in this area,” Throckmorton said. “It’s a growing market. Whether you like it or not, they’re here to stay.”

While emergency personnel might encounter hybrids more often, Throckmorton said they may not necessarily have to fear them. According to Throckmorton, hybrids have been “over-engineered” for safety, and thus, in the event of an accident, are programmed to turn off the electrical system if certain accident conditions have occurred.

“If the seat belt pre-tensioners have blown, the high-voltage system has shut off,” Throckmorton said. “If the airbags have deployed, the high-voltage system is dead. That’s true with every hybrid vehicle; they’re over-engineered for safety.”

In the event that the electrical system does not shut down, however, there are several safety precautions that rescue workers can take. The first of those precautions, according to Throckmorton, was a pair of hybrid-specific gloves.

“The very first things you need are gloves,” Throckmorton said. “I would recommend having at least one set for every fire truck, ambulance, or EMS truck.”

In addition to gloves, Throckmorton said there was another effective — and cost-effective — safety tool that rescue workers can use. Throckmorton said the smartphone app Extricate, which is free to download on phones with Apple and Android operating systems, has most of the information rescue workers would need to safely disengage active electrical components.

“It has all the emergency response guides from all the manufacturers,” Throckmorton said. “It will show you where the airbags are, where the battery pack is and where the high-voltage electric circuits are. That’s kind of neat to know.”

Tools and apps aside, however, Throckmorton said the most effective way to determine if a vehicle’s electric system is active is to look at the vehicle’s dash.

“If the dash is lit, then the high-voltage system still has power,” Throckmorton said. “If the system is still live, you need to disable it.”

As it turns out, disabling those systems may not prove to be difficult. According to Throckmorton, though hybrids can run on amounts of electricity that could be lethal to a person, the computer systems that control that electricity oftentimes don’t.

“The only things that run on high voltage are the electric motors, the air-conditioning system and the charging system,” Throckmorton said. “All the computers run on 12 volts. If I disconnect or cut the 12-volt battery cables, what did I just do? I just disabled the high-voltage system.”

Though disabling the system can, at times, be that easy, Throckmorton cautioned rescue workers that there are times where that method will not work, and that circumstances may call for additional safety steps.

“I would much rather you be safe than sorry,” Throckmorton said. “Take an extra five minutes to shut the key off, or pull the service disconnect. There are all kinds of ways to do this.”

Throughout the evening, Throckmorton touched on some of those methods as he discussed specifics of hybrid models from each of the major manufacturers.

After the seminar had concluded, Dawson said some of his colleagues contacted him to express their appreciation.

“I got an email from one of the chiefs of one of the Sullivan County departments,” Dawson said. “He was thankful for being invited, and said he thought it was a very informative class. I was glad to hear that.”

Dawson, who does industrial electric work for Eastman Chemical Co., added that even he felt some reluctance as far as hybrids were concerned. After the seminar, however, he said he feels prepared for that moment when and if he is called to work around a hybrid.

“These hybrid vehicles sort of ... scared me, because I didn’t know anything about them,” Dawson said. “It made me feel a whole lot better to learn what we learned.”

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