In vehicle rescue today it is easy to get caught up in all of the talk about advanced steels, what hydraulic tool manufacturer is the best and hybrid technology. It seems that a lot of firefighters, EMTs and police officers responding to motor vehicle crashes forget about airbag safety while operating to extricate injured occupants. Airbags both deployed and undeployed pose a serious danger to both first responders and the injured occupants. Airbags deploy rapidly, in less than 30 milliseconds, and can cause severe or even fatal injuries to the first responder caught in its path. Accidental deployment of an undeployed airbag during rescue operations can be caused by a variety of reasons from movement of the vehicle to a hydraulic rescue tool crushing/cutting a component of the airbag system.
With modern safety standards vehicles are becoming equipped with a wide array of airbags. This is in contrast to the earlier design where there was “simply” an airbag located in the steering column, for the driver, and in some cases another in dash for the front passenger. These earlier designs left the remaining occupants fending for themselves and really only protected against an impact from the rear or a frontal crash.
In newer model vehicles we now find airbags for the driver and front occupant and back seat occupants. There are also additional airbags to protect the occupants’ head, chest and knees from all types of impacts. The addition of these airbags has made it necessary for first responders to be aware of where these airbags could be deployed from and how to keep safe from them if they should deploy during rescue operations. These additional airbags have the potential to deploy from the roofline along the “A”, “B” and “C” post, the sides/rear of seats, below the dash boards, center consoles, doors and even from the structure of the post of the vehicle. In some vehicle models airbags are equipped with secondary deployment systems for secondary impacts which is why there is an emphasis to keep clear of deployed and undeployed airbags.
A simple rule to remember is the 5-10-20 Rule which depicts the clearance from a deployed or undeployed airbag. 5 inch clearance from side impact airbags, 10 inch clearance from a steering column airbag and 20 inch clearance from a passenger side dashboard airbag. This simple reminder will keep you out of harm’s way or at least peak your awareness when operating at your next motor vehicle crash or extrication call. In some cases you will have to be in a deployment zone as it is necessary to extricate the patient or maneuver around; simply limit your time in the deployment zone.
Recognition of undeployed airbags is important as well in this process. Vehicle manufacturers, foreign and domestic, mark airbags with either “Airbag” or “SRS” for Supplemental Restraint System.
Another important point with airbag safety is in securing the battery to a vehicle especially during rescue operations. Although this does not guarantee your safety from deployed/undeployed airbags it can definitely lower the chances of an airbag deployment during rescue operations.
Every vehicle presents its own challenges. First responders must ensure they are prepared to deal with the challenges presented by airbags. The video below is from a recent staff training session conducted by Mercedes Benz USA. Each airbag is individually deployed. Notice the speed and force with which each airbag deploys. Remember the 5-10-20 Rule as you watch.