The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 2014 there were 6.1 million police-reported accidents. Although 72 percent of these crashes involved property damage only, 2.3 million people were injured and 32,675 people were killed in the remaining crashes.1 Of the 1.7 million crashes involving injuries or fatalities, it is fair to say that firefighters responded to a significant number of them. Auto accident response is common in the United States, as well as in other countries. Canada reports more than 120,000 accidents involving injuries or fatalities in 2013.2
Accidents can be severe on high-speed, limited-access highways but also on two-lane country roads that may have lower speed limits and less room for error with a much higher chance of head-on and intersection accidents. Firefighters are likely to be more frequently presented with the opportunity to save lives during response to auto accidents than the average firefighter has the opportunity to directly save a life at a structure fire response. Firefighters must be prepared to respond to and be well-trained to take quick and effective action at accident scenes to quickly and efficiently protect and extricate victims while at the same time protecting themselves from injury.
PREPARED FOR ANYTHING
An auto accident scene can also result in many other hazards, including electrical/arcing wires, structural damage/intrusion into buildings, natural gas/propane leaks, spills of gasoline or other flammable liquid leaks, and other potential hazardous materials situations. A typical dispatch for an auto accident will likely include emergency medical services (EMS) units and perhaps a squad/rescue or ladder company. The ladder company may be assigned for traffic blocking if operating on a multilane highway or may be assigned as the extrication company. If there is a report of one or more victims trapped or pinned in the accident, the dispatch is likely to add the squad/rescue units or other apparatus. Firefighters may not be thoroughly trained in vehicle extrication procedures; however, they will play a vital role in ensuring that accident scenes are properly managed and extrications are successfully completed.
At a vehicle accident scene, the initial-arriving fire company has a number of tasks that must be completed. Personnel must be prepared to address any hazards found and provide standby fire protection as needed. When individuals are trapped, these tasks become more critical and require a higher level of attention. If a fire were to break out, crews must be prepared to protect the trapped victims. An extinguisher (I suggest 15 pounds or greater dry chemical, clean agent, or carbon dioxide) should be the minimum protection, but a 1½-inch or 1¾-inch handline may be more appropriate, particularly if a fuel spill is present. To be more effective, the tasks of personnel arriving first at an accident can best be broken down by the function, or riding position, of the personnel on the apparatus. This will be discussed assuming that the first-arriving unit is an engine company, but the tasks can be similar regardless of which apparatus arrives first.
ENGINE DRIVER RESPONSIBILITIES
The driver of the first-arriving company has a number of important tasks to accomplish. He must ensure that the apparatus arrives safely at the scene, including a safe response and a safe arrival watching for victims, onlookers, and other arriving emergency vehicles that may not anticipate arriving at the same time. Whenever possible, the engine should be located in an uphill, upwind position from the accident scene. This may be difficult depending on the direction the apparatus approaches the scene from, but the officer and driver should consider this before and during the response. It is best to position the apparatus approximately with some space from the scene, providing a safety cushion and allowing maximum access for EMS and rescue units. The vehicle position should protect rescuers where possible by shielding traffic lanes and allow safe egress from the apparatus for personnel to the accident scene.
The driver should also consider the need for a water supply: Will one be needed, and where can I get it from? What is the best way to achieve a supply if the incident escalates: a line to a hydrant or tanker/tender supply? If necessary, prepare for the application of foam, particularly if flammable liquids are spilled. The driver needs to keep in mind that to avoid overheating (or freezing in cold weather), water will need to be recirculated through the tank during operations when hoselines are charged but not flowing water.
ENGINE OFFICER RESPONSIBILITIES
The engine company officer also has numerous responsibilities. He needs to identify all of the hazards present, including vehicle fuel and electrical systems, utility lines/systems that may have been impacted by the accident, traffic hazards, distraught accident victims and families, and any hazardous materials that may be involved in the incident. The officer needs to make appropriate notifications and requests for assistance regarding these items and set up or pass command as needed. The officer also needs to provide normal supervision of his crew during any other tasks they are accomplishing.
ENGINE CREW RESPONSIBILITIES
The engine company crew needs to don appropriate personal protective equipment, particularly to protect eyes and hands. Safety glasses or a higher level of eye protection is crucial. Hands should be protected with a minimum of bloodborne pathogen gloves, along with gloves that will protect hands against sharp metal and glass edges that will likely be present. There are gloves on the market that provide protection against both, or firefighters may choose to “double glove,” wearing a pair of both types of gloves. The crew should wear body protection that will also protect them against both types of hazards. Under certain conditions, engine company personnel may choose to don self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with the mask on standby if there is a significant probability that one or more vehicle may catch fire during the incident (fuel spill, etc.). In that situation, the crew would have to react quickly to extinguish the fire and remove the victims from harm’s way, and SCBA would be needed to accomplish this.
One of the engine crew’s primary functions should be to stabilize the vehicle to prevent further movement and allow EMS personnel to gain safe access to the victims. Engine crews should be familiar with basic cribbing techniques and know where to access the equipment needed to accomplish this. If flammable liquids are leaking, consideration should be given to placing a foam line in service. Attempt to control any hazardous runoff and prevent it from entering sewer systems or waterways. Use absorbent materials where available to attempt to reduce the flammable hazard. Even dirt or sand could be used to control runoff if nothing else is available.
The vehicle battery may need to be disconnected, but crew members should understand that if they do so, it will shut down electricity to the entire vehicle. Before disconnected the battery, crews may want to consider moving power seats back if this will assist in extricating the victim. Various smartphone apps are available that assist in locating the battery and other safety features of various vehicles. If the vehicle has struck a utility pole or other electrical distribution device, it will be vital to verify that the vehicle and area are not charged with electricity. Look for wires down or wires that enter the ground from the pole. If a utility pole is involved, ensure that the power company that serves the area has an emergency crew en route. If natural gas or liquefied propane lines have been compromised, secure the gas feed to the area. Crews may need to check nearby structures for electrical shorts, surges, or gas leaking into the buildings if significant damage has been done to utility lines. The crew may also need to assist EMS or the rescue company as directed with accessing the victim, patient stabilization, hand tools, providing lighting for the scene, or other support functions.
Auto accident? There is a very good chance your fire department is and will be dispatched to them. There are many different tasks that need to be accomplished at an accident scene. Each crew member on the initial-arriving apparatus should be designated particular functions to successfully mitigate the incident.
These functions can become blurred when one unit is expected to perform multiple tasks with minimal staffing. This can be particularly true with recent popularity of multifunction vehicles equipped with rescue tools and fire suppression capabilities. The functions identified here are just the primary functions of first-arriving companies assigned to handle auto accidents and extrications and should be accomplished with a minimum four-person crew, although six would be better.
Take the time now to be sure your firefighters know what is expected of them at an accident scene and can carry out those expectations effectively and quickly.
1. National Center for Statistics and Analysis. 2014 Crash Data Key Findings (Traffic Safety Facts CrashStats.) Report No. DOT HS 812 219). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, November 2015, www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/812219.pdf.
2. Transport Canada, Canadian Motor Vehicle Traffic Collision Statistics 2013, www.tc.gc.ca/media/documents/roadsafety/cmvtcs2013_eng.pdf.