Saturday, 31 July 2004 17:00

First Responders protect selves and victims in crashes

Written by Janet Chaney
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As I pulled up to EZ Autobody CARSTAR in Gilbert, Arizona, it looked like a full-fledged disaster site. There were six fire trucks - three with booms extended - and about 100 firefighters and emergency technicians. But something looked different. Instead of their life-saving gear, they were dressed in shorts and blue department t-shirts, drinking coffee and eating donuts as they awaited the start of the First Response training seminar. "First responders" from Sedona to Phoenix were talking shop and admiring the highly-polished fire engines - all dressed up for this event. 

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The First Response training program was developed by Todd Hoffman, a Southern Region I-CAR instructor, exclusively for firefighters and EMTs who are the first to arrive at the scene of an accident - first responders. After 9/11, Hoffman asked himself, "What can I do?" The answer was to teach First Responders how to deal with the dangers presented by modern automotive technology such as undeployed airbags and the high-voltage system in hybrid cars.

Working with NHTSA and fire departments, Hoffman developed and fine- tuned the full-day training program which he presents all around the country. His only requirement is that no participant is to be charged for the training.

With his I-CAR training experience, Hoffman is no stranger to the classroom. He puts on an informative and exciting class which includes: safety processes for extracting air bags and restraint systems, live deployment of air bags, live extrication procedures, safe distancing practices and procedures, and meeting the new challenges of alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles.

Frightening scenario

Hoffman began the program with a video of an "unusual" accident scenario which takes place at Los Angeles Inter-national Airport (LAX) in California. "An accident," Hoffman quipped, "that I hope none of you ever will have to respond to."

The video shows a man driving a silver Jeep who was lost on the runway at LAX, the one that goes over the freeway. While he is driving down the runway, a very large 747 comes flying in behind him and rear-ends his Jeep, causing amazingly little damage. The Jeep is being pushed down the runway with the 747 riding in the back - and here comes a sweet little old lady driving her Nash Rambler down the runway, straight at the jeep and its new passenger, the 747. The Jeep driver frantically waves her off - just in time for her to pass between the Jeep and the outside wheels of the plane. But Grandma comes back for more, giving the driver and the pilot a well-known hand signal that basically told them to keep out of her way!

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Firefighter James Fillmore, Gilbert, suits up to demonstrate a passenger extraction.Medivac pilot, Bill Sorenson of Air Evac Z in Phoenix, lands at the First Response training seminar and lets participants take a close look at the helicopter.


Crash tests and stats

After starting with a good laugh, the training program continued with actual videos of crash tests and statistics. The attendees sat in rapt attention looking at scenarios similar to those they see first hand in the line of duty. Hoffman then discussed the details of air bag history and functionality. "Did you know," Hoffman, asked, "that the economic effect of not wearing seat belts is $230.6 billion."

He discussed new technological advances that are coming about, such as "smart bags" - a Mercedes Benz system that anticipates an accident and deploys accordingly. Many new systems will deploy airbags only when a passenger is in the seat. First Responders must be up-to-date on all the contingencies involved in safety systems.
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From left to right, Todd Smith, engineer; James Fillmore, firefighter and paramedic; Rick Orta, paramedic; and Randy Hooks, captain, Gilbert Fire Department Ladder 254, spend the day at the First Response training seminar in Gilbert, Arizona.
First Responders will first try to get all the power out of the damaged vehicle, but many times that is an impossible task. And unexpected things can happen. Hoffman related a story of an airbag that blew 23 minutes after rescue procedures had begun, right in the face of the First Responder attempting the extrication.
Thus, First Responders are reminded to "scan" the vehicle for potential problems. There are 30 different areas in which airbags can be located According to Hoffman, Volvo is a good example of the complexity (or absurdity) of locating multiple airbags which might deploy. The company removed airbag IDs from the car because customers were "afraid" of them. The airbags are still in the car, but more difficult to identify. The complexity and lack of any standardization in today's automobiles makes it a daunting task for First Responders to locate and work through restraint systems.

Dangers in new materials

He next discussed the new technology in car design and new materials that are flammable and may be toxic to the First Responders, such as the new plastics and exotic metals, new fuel systems, foam fillers, catalytic converters and sealed components, such as struts. Ford has put a magnesium core support in the new F-150 pickups to save 20 pounds in the overall weight of the pickup. Ignited magnesium, however, cannot be put out with water, necessitating the use of a different fire extinguishing chemical.

Another video showed a First Responder standing next to the right front tire of a burning automobile when the bumper shock absorber exploded like a lethal weapon, leaving a six-inch bolt in his leg.


As the program was shifting from classroom to the "hands-on" extrication processes, attendees moved outside to meet the Medivac helicopter landing in the open field next to the shop. Pilot Bill Sorenson, Air Evac Z, landed just in time to join his colleagues for lunch and to participate in the afternoon class session.


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Todd Hoffman deploys an airbag so the firefighters and EMTs can see, smell and hear the process.CBS affiliate, Channel 15 is filming the firefighters in a demonstration extracting "passenger" John Pole, owner of EZ Autobody CARSTAR, where the First Response training seminar was held.



Let 'er blow

The afternoon training began with everyone gathering around the two total loss vehicles parked in the training center. Hoffman began by blowing an airbag in the first car, so participants could actually see and hear the process. Standing around the car, Hoffman continued to discuss explosives in the car. The accordion-like device on the seatbelt has a small explosive device; some roll bars are deployable devices, some headrests are active headrests - important to First Responders because an active headrest can move suddenly and unexpectedly during the rescue. The BMW Z4 headrests, for example, are considered roll-over protection and cannot be removed; they must be cut out.

Todd Hoffman's Texas "Chicken Ranch" sale funds First Response program

By Janet Chaney

Todd Hoffman was inspired to develop and teach the First Response training program after observing the bravery of firefighter and EMTs during 9/11. His background in the collision repair in-dustry and as a Southern Region I-CAR instructor, coupled with a very energetic entrepreneurial spirit, led him to create the First Response training program, designed to teach first responders how to work safely such dangers as airbag systems and high voltage hybrid cars.

Hoffman offers his services for free, with sponsors such as body shops providing only training space and incidentals. How can he do it?

Basements aren't for building cars

Hoffman began working on cars when he was 13 years old. His father bought him a 1960 Ford Falcon station wagon - in pieces.

The worst problem Hoffman encountered was that, having done all the assembly work in the basement, he couldn't get the engine and transmission out of the house. He solved the problem by taking them apart and putting them back together again. And he had a car to drive

Hoffman's business card reads "Todd Hoffman, GED" (general education degree). He laughed, saying, "college graduates put their letters behind their names. I am just doing the same thing."

Hoffman has gone from selling used cars to the body shop business; working the shrimp boats out of Galveston, Texas, and back to the body shop business. He also took two-and-a-half years off and sailed solo from Green Bay, Wisconsin to Houston, Texas ( via the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast).

A piece of the Texas "Chicken Ranch"

Back in Houston, Hoffman had an unusual idea. At that time, he was in the business of selling dirt to the state of Texas - the home of the Chicken Ranch, which he noticed was for sale.

Don't remember the Chicken Ranch? go rent the movie, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas, was perhaps the oldest continuously running brothel in the nation, opening in 1844 and operating seven days a week for 130 years. Miss Jessie Williams was the madam of the Chicken Ranch beginning in 1905. Learning of an impending crusade against her business in town, she bought two dwellings and eleven acres outside of the city limits of La Grange, just two blocks from the Houston-Galveston Highway. Location! Location! Location!

As the Great Depression hit, Miss Jessie began the "poultry standard" - one chicken for ........(use imagination here). Her girls were never hungry and the establishment became known as the Chicken Ranch. On August 1, 1973, the Chicken Ranch was closed for good, but not before it had become a Texas icon.

Hoffman bought the Chicken Ranch, and had it legally surveyed by the inch. The headline in the Austin Statesman read: "Chicken Ranch To Re-Open at $8.00 Per Square Inch." The story ran in over 5,000 newspapers and was also featured in Time Magazine. Hoffman sold thousands of deeds to an inch of the Chicken Ranch to people who wanted a little piece of Texas history.

Extricating a passenger
The second car in the training center was a left-side hit from which the class watched a passenger being cut out from the vehicle. This was especially important for the attendees - fire fighters and EMTs - since this is what they do every day. The gravity and seriousness of this event was clear to everyone, even when the outcome was a predetermined success.

John Pole, owner of EZ Autobody CARSTAR, volunteered to be the passenger in this scenario. As the extrication unit of Gilbert Arizona ladder team 254 suited up for the demonstration, Pole moved into the driver's seat of the wrecked car. Arizona CBS affiliate Channel 15 was there and captured the "rescue" on tape for the evening news.

Pole got behind the steering wheel of the already totaled car and the doors were slammed shut. The First Responders moved in. One firefighter entered the car from the passenger side and covered the driver. As soon as Pole is protected, two more firefighters started the extraction process. Four of them were working on the car at the same time

As the demonstration continued, Hoffman talked to the class. He stressed the importance of stripping the trim off the pillars before cutting through them to expose gas inflators which are designed into many of the pillars. In about half an hour, Pole was extricated from the vehicle - safe and sound.

Even though everyone knew the outcome, it was still a heart-stopping event. Department Training Officer Captain J.W. Campbell Jr. of the Phoenix Fire Department pointed out that "when we are doing this rescue (for real) there are people crying and screaming. Flashing lights and sirens cause even more distractions and dangers." A sober reminder of the reality of why the First Responders were here.

Then it was back to the classroom for the rest of the training session, where Hoffman discussed the high voltage in hybrid cars and safe handling procedures for alternative fuels.

Debra Mars, an auto appraiser from The Hartford Insurance Company, acknowledged that "I didn't realize what these guys have to go through."

As collision repairers, most of us give very little thought to what the First Responders go through at the scene of the accident. We evaluate a wreck in the relative calm and safety of our shops, not on the street with lights flashing and victims screaming. Todd Hoffman did think about this issue. When asked why he put forth all this effort, he simply stated: "I'm helping save the life of someone who saves others."

Janet Chaney has served in many facets of the collision repair industry. She is now looking after the best interests of her clients from Cave Creek, Arizona. Her email address is janet_chaney@earthlink.net.


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