At a firefighter training center, a modern sport-utility vehicle is being carved up like a rotisserie chicken at a summer picnic.
But the lesson today isn't just about how to save trapped victims in serious car accidents.
Rather, it's focusing on how cars have changed in ways that make rescues more complicated and dangerous for first responders — from new types of steel that are tougher to cut, to high-voltage cables in hybrid-electric cars. Firefighters and other first responders now face a host of unknowns at the scene of any serious auto accident.
"They're designing cars for consumers, not for rescuers," instructor Greg Rudiger tells a class of first responders here at the Rio Hondo Fire Academy training center.
Automakers want to help make rescues easier but are in a bind: Consumers are demanding lighter cars with advanced powertrains that get better fuel economy without sacrificing safety. Designs that accomplish those goals and include the most desired safety features also sometimes increase injury risks for rescuers. They make it tougher to extract victims to rush them to emergency rooms in the "golden hour," the critical 60 minutes that can decide life or death.
As a result, automakers are trying to work with fire departments and educators around the country to train rescuers in new techniques and inform them about potential risks in person or with an avalanche of information and diagrams.
Industry groups also are pushing for stricter safety labeling and training. A task force of SAE International, a powerful industry group founded as the Society of Automotive Engineers, is close to recommending standardized labels for the inside and outside of all hybrid and other electrified cars so that first responders know quickly what type of vehicle they have encountered after a crash.
Some individual automakers are taking their own initiatives. Firefighters often get to practice techniques only on old junk cars, but South Korean maker Kia recently donated 32 3-year-old Borrego SUVs with recent technology and design to the academy in this industrial city southeast of Los Angeles for crews to tear apart.
"We need to tell them where all the hazards are," says Kia spokesman Scott McKee, who was on hand to see some of his company's vehicles unceremoniously dispatched.
Having the latest vehicles on hand for practice allows rescuers to deal with hazards such as:
•Air bags. Cutters or other extraction tools can puncture explosive propellant tanks of any air bags that didn't inflate in a crash.
•Hybrid batteries. More vehicles have hybrid or electric powerplants, in which it is critical to properly handle high-voltage cables and lithium-ion or nickel-metal-hydride batteries after an accident.
•High-strength steel. Automakers are using higher percentages of high-strength and ultra-high-strength steel in car bodies to save on weight and boost gas mileage. It's much lighter than standard steel but much tougher to shear, bend or tear apart. And in order to meet tougher roof-crush standards, the support pillars are stronger, making them harder to snip.
•Keyless ignitions. Push-button ignitions that don't use keys often make it difficult to know when the engine is running. The problem is complicated in hybrid and electric cars, which can be fully "on" without an engine running.