Hybrid Cars Raise Risky Rescue Issues

Hybrid cars are hot sellers for today's gas-conscious American drivers. But for emergency workers who might have to rescue someone from a high-tech wreck, the vehicles may be literally too hot to handle.

The technology behind hybrids — cars that use both a gasoline engine and electric motor for propulsion — may save on fuel for the driver, but it could also put rescuers at risk of serious electrical shock.

"If you're walking up to a [hybrid] car that's laid up on its side, the last thing we're looking forward to is getting electrocuted" says Herbert Scott, chief of the Brinker Volunteer fire department in Silver Springs, Texas. "Without a doubt there will be a day where that will happen."

And while such fatalities haven't occurred yet — in part because of the relatively small percentage of hybrids on U.S. roads so far — Scott and others in the emergency response field see the signs of change.

This summer, Ford will release its long awaited Escape Hybrid sport utility vehicle. And adding to its successful Prius hybrid, Toyota will add its own gas-sipping SUVs, the Lexus RX400h and Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

And that has many rescue personnel worried.

Electrical Education

"There are a lot of dangerous things [in hybrids] that we don't normally consider in car accidents," says Todd Hoffman, an independent contractor who teaches volunteer firefighters about car collisions on behalf of several auto insurance agencies.

One of the biggest concerns is the electrical system of hybrids. Normal cars use batteries typically in the 12 volt range. But in hybrids, the electrical requirements can be 10 to 20 times greater and that could provide for unpleasant surprises.

"In a 12-volt vehicle, if a rescuer cuts through a battery cable, the biggest threat he faces is creating a spark that ignites something," says Hoffman. "In a hybrid, if you cut through the wrong thing — a high-voltage cable — it's possible you'll have a dead responder on your hands."

Manufacturers such as Honda and Toyota say their hybrid vehicles have computer safety systems that are suppose to minimize the risk of accidental electrocution. Officials at Toyota, for example, say controls on-board its Prius will automatically shut-off the engine and disconnect power if the airbags deploy or it senses a sudden deacceleration indicative of a collision.

What's more, high-voltage components in hybrids are marked by bright orange colors to alert rescuers of the potential danger. And while its hidden away from sight by normal owners, the location of these components are clearly marked in guides freely published and offered to any emergency agency that requests them.

"We have worked very closely with experienced safety crews to identify how best to ensure the safety of everyone involved," said Dave Zellers, Toyota vice president of quality and service support, in a press release. "The fact is that Prius hybrids have been on U.S. roads for five years and we're not aware of any personal injury in the U.S. related to hybrid or [pure electric vehicle] electrical systems."

Information and Identification

As consumers wait in line for these cars, Scott, like the millions of other firefighters and emergency "first responders" nationwide are still examining the new technology in order to identify possible hazards and methods of dealing with them.

But even with such guides, firefighters responding to an accident scene will have to know which particular model hybrid they're dealing with. And given the nature of collisions, that can be a difficult task.

"A big problem with hybrid cars is identification," says Hoffman. "Most have minor or little tags on the vehicle that say 'hybrid.' And if it's been rear-ended, there's no way to tell if it is a hybrid or not."

And while firefighters such as Scott welcome help and information from manufacturers about hybrid technology, it can be daunting, if not impossible, to assimilate it all.

"To get that knowledge out there means a lot to me. This is stuff we need to know," says Scott. "But they can put out books for each and every car and they'd be like the size of three or four Sears catalogs."

Cautious Approach

For now, trainers and instructors such as Hoffman are advising rescuers to take additional basic precautions when dealing with all car accidents. Most responders, for example, are told to use insulated gloves, and emphasize teamwork.

One rescuer might tend to the victim while another is opening the car's hood to disconnect the battery. Yet another firefighter might places chocks or blocks to stabilize the car from further movement while under the watchful eye of a partner, standing by with a hose charged to douse any fire or chemical spill from a hybrid's high-capacity battery.

Scott says that although he hasn't personally responded to a hybrid car accident, he now tends to approach any accident scene with more caution.

"I don't touch anything until I can look things over," says Scott who's been a professional firefighter for seven years. "If a driver isn't sitting there frying, I'm going to try and learn everything I can about the car before I go in there."

Still, he doesn't oppose the new technology. In fact, despite the additional burdens it places on him as a lifesaver, he cherishes it.

"If I had my way, I'd buy the newest car with the most advanced technology in the world to keep me and my grandkids safe," says Scott. "But I'd hate to be the firefighter that has to cut me out [of the accidental wreck]."