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Vehicle rescue and the challenges for brigades
The wet, windy conditions that lead to car and truck accidents also just happen to be the conditions that make life tough for firefighters when carrying out technical rescue operations.
That was the case on 25 July, when CFA crews battled freezing conditions to respond to an MVA (with a person possibly trapped) on the Princes Highway in Eumemmerring.
On arrival shortly after 7pm, crews from Hallam and Dandenong brigades could see that a single vehicle had made significant contact with a tree, with the car wrapped around the tree on the driver’s side.
Incident Controller Josh Redfern, a senior station officer at Dandenong, said his crew unfortunately discovered that the man trapped in the vehicle was deceased, which meant the incident was handed over to Victoria Police.
“Due to the discovery of a fatality we left the scene and came back at a later time,” Josh said. “From there, our strategy was to remove the sides from the vehicle and spread the car out from around the tree.”
Brigade members were then able to carefully remove the body.
Said Josh: “In this instance, we are able to work more slowly and carefully, and the incident was very straightforward. But in cases where we are required to extract an injured occupant there can be a lot more pressure.”
Over the past seven years, the number of motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) attended by CFA members has sharply increased.
Volunteer firefighter and CFA photographer Keith Pakenham regularly attends MVAs with Dandenong. He said the wet and windy conditions that often cause vehicle accidents can also cause gridlocked traffic and poor visibility.
“On the way to the incident different scenarios are running through your mind,” said Keith. “Callers to Tripe Zero often over or underestimate the severity of accidents, so it’s hard to be sure what you will be presented with when you get there.”
Once on-scene, firefighters work very closely with Ambulance Victoria paramedics, and they won’t move or touch anything until a patient has been stabilised.
In rescue situations where a patient requires extraction, Keith emphasised that every second counts.
The first task for firefighters is to stabilise the vehicle, a process Keith said “can take incredible ingenuity”. Chocks may be placed under wheels, the car might be jacked up and lines may even be used to secure the car to trees or buildings.
When the vehicle has been stabilised, crews may use different techniques to cut or ‘spread’ the car. Key pieces of equipment for vehicle rescue are cutters, spreaders and rams. Most are powered hydraulically, though battery-operated units are starting to be used by some brigades.
Meanwhile, safety is paramount.
“We need to do everything to make the patient safe, but our crews also need to be safe in what they are doing,” said Josh. “There’s always the risk that you’ll cut into something and it will spring back at you, or you’ll cut into something you thought was solid and the car will collapse.”
Accredited rescue operators undertake regular training to keep their skills up to date. With so many different models of vehicle in Australia, part of the training includes awareness of built-in features such as airbags or canisters – items that can be hazardous for firefighters trying to cut into a vehicle.
Josh said that modern cars are getting stronger, which means they are “safer to drive but harder to cut into”.
Onlookers can be a challenge. In these days of smart phones and social media, people will try to approach the scene, slow or even stop their cars – posing a threat to the patient’s privacy and increasing the risk of further accidents.
Responders will often try to counter this rubbernecking by putting tarpaulins or blankets over the victim, but that can also impede the personnel trying to carry out precision work inside the vehicle.
Meanwhile, if the incident has involved the vehicle going in to a structure or pole, firefighters will need to stay mindful of the possibility for falling wires or debris, and may need to wait for power companies to attend if live power lines have come down on to the ground.
“A firefighter is always put in place whose sole focus is to do nothing but stand ready with a hose and watch, listen and smell for any sign of danger,” said Keith, who also mentioned car batteries as a further hazard with potential to start a fire.
Vehicle rescue can only be carried out by a registered and accredited rescue brigade or SES unit. Most rescue units are volunteer based such as Langwarrin, Casterton, Nar Nar Goon and Ballarat but some are attached to integrated brigades such as Dandenong, Geelong City and Melton.