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NS Firefighters get first response training on hybrid vehicles

There are over 1.7 million hybrids on the roads in North America and it is said that in the near future they will account for 26% of all vehicles on the road.

By Bruce Blackwood

As this technology becomes more popular every day, our firefighters and medical personnel, who regularly respond to motor vehicle collisions and other emergencies, are presented with new safety challenges.

First responders get a first look at the new 2010 Prius that was made available from O’Regans in Bridgewater.

The hybrid vehicle uses a conventional gasoline engine in addition to an electric motor to power the vehicle. Like other vehicles, gasoline is stored in a fuel tank. The hybrid stores it electrical power in high voltage battery packs. It is this high voltage electrical system that raises some safety concerns during emergency first response situations.

On September 26, 2009 over 30 volunteer firefighters and medical first responders from the seven fire departments of the Municipality of the District of Chester (Martin’s River, Western Shore, Chester Basin, Chester, Hubbards, Blandford and New Ross) attended a hybrid vehicle clinic. David Giles, a certified master hybrid trainer from the Nova Scotia Community College provided an in-depth presentation on the safety aspects of first response to incidents involving the new hybrids.

How do we identify a hybrid? It really is not that easy as they look like any other model. Some signs to look for are the aerial on the roof, hybrid name plates, or those bright orange cables under the hood.

Are we safe from the high voltage? The simple answer is yes. These cars have multiple redundant safety systems to protect the occupants and first responders. These vehicles can have inertia switches and heat sensors that disconnect the high voltage systems. The high voltage is always shut down when the vehicle is in the off position. There are also emergency disconnect switches and fuses on the battery packs in the event of any short circuit.

How should we approach the vehicle if involved in a collision? As with any other vehicle first responders must approach a hybrid with caution. The cardinal rule is to always assume the vehicle is still powered up even if you cannot hear any engine noise. Secure the vehicle, put it in Park, and chock the wheels as the hybrid’s gasoline engine may start up unexpectedly. Remember to shut it down.

Damaged vehicles were also on hand to give the participants a look at components and procedures when securing a HV vehicle.

How do we shut down the high voltage? The easiest way to shut down the vehicle is by removing the key or switching the dash power switch to the off position. Remember that the 12 volt system is your priority. When you disable the 12 volt system, all high voltage systems are disabled as well. Disconnect the low voltage system by cutting the 12 volt battery cables.

If the 12 volt cannot be accessed, other options include removing the ignition fuse or the high voltage service disconnect switch. However, remember to never cut into the high voltage orange colored cables or into the battery case. These may still be charged.

How do we fight a vehicle fire? There are really no unusual hazards associated with a fire in a hybrid. The high voltage battery packs are dry cells, non-flammable and non-explosive. Standard precautions and firefighting procedures should be used. Remember that the airbags will deploy if exposed to high temperatures.

What about a vehicle submerged in water? There is no risk of electric shock from touching the car’s body or framework in or out of the water. Remove the vehicle and use the recommended shutdown procedures.

What about vehicle extrication procedures? If cutters or spreaders are required to extricate occupants from a damaged vehicle it is critical the proper cut zones be used. These safe zones are published for each vehicle model.

The NSCC program provided us with the detailed Emergency Response Guide and additional important information on the use of new high strength boron steel in the vehicle design. Quick reference guides for emergency response for the various models were provided as well. Our “hands on” session allowed us to work inside a damaged vehicle that had been stripped down to show the location of the battery packs and high voltage wiring.

HV Batteries that are rated over 300 volts are now common in may Hybrids, and the first responders during the training were given the opportunity to see inside a HV battery pack

All participants had the opportunity to practice first response to such vehicles and actually disconnect the high voltage systems. Our firefighters and medical first responders all had some fun actually driving the cars, including a 2010 Toyota Prius courtesy of Tim O’Regan of South Shore Toyota.

The clinic involved an overview of the most recent air bag and air curtain safety systems. The latest in Emergency Response guides were provided. The day ended with a “bang” and some “fireworks“ when Giles set off a couple of air bags to demonstrate the need for safety when working round these systems that may remain un-deployed at the emergency scene.

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