Working with air bags during extrication


CarolinaFireJournal - David Pease
David Pease The Reds Team
10/14/2011 -
As I write this column, I have come to realize that not only with age comes wisdom and experience, but sometimes the sadness of losing friends that we have known and trained with for some time. Over the years I have seen some of my fellow rescuers leave this life of either old age, disease, or sudden illness, as well as one of my own members that committed suicide. A realization that Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) is something we should make use of when there are stresses in our lives, or the lives of our members. Calls can be extremely stressful and we have to deal with that stress. But that is another article all together. image

This dual airbag module will be found under the dash.

In August, the chief of Fremont Rescue and a good friend and mentor, succumbed to cancer at the age of 53. Ed Parks was a dedicated rescuer and believed in what he did. He spent his life saving others and teaching those coming up how to do the same. I met Ed back in the late ‘80s when he worked to help train our team in technical rescue, and from there it became a bonding friendship. I will miss Ed, as will those that knew and worked with him. We can rest assured that he will be watching as we continue to save and train others.


This picture shows a side bag deployed
from the side of the seat.

Last issue we talked about frontal airbags. Almost every car we will deal with will have them. Some will have dual activating frontal airbags. These airbags came in two basic configurations. Some are designed so that on a lighter impact, the bag will not inflate at 100 percent, leaving the front passengers with less chance of injury from the airbag itself. The other effect is that the bag can inflate twice, as to why they are called dual activating. A vehicle strikes another vehicle in an intersection and then travels across and strikes a pole. The bag will inflate on first impact and then again on the second impact, thus offering the occupants better protection. What this means for you as the rescuer is, just because the airbag is hanging out of the steering hub and dashboard, does not mean it is deactivated. There could be a second inflation if not deactivated and the sensors make contact.

When we approach the vehicle, we still need to disconnect the battery cables even if we see an airbag activation has taken place. If you look at the bag itself, it will also indicate if it is a dual activating airbag. Again, use caution when working on the patients in the front seat. Keep yourself from being placed between the dash and patients you are working on. Now that we have covered the basics for frontal airbags, let’s look at side impact bags and how they may affect our extrications.

The most common side impact bag comes out of the side of the seat. However, some of your higher end cars have side impact bags that come out of the door. These airbags are not controlled by the battery system, so disconnecting the battery cables will not deactivate these airbags. These bags are wired to sensors in the door that activate through a pyrotechnic device. This basically means on impact a small explosion activates the bag. These bags also have high pressure cylinders that fill the bags with air or an inert gas. These cylinders are located in the post of the vehicle and caution should be used when cutting the post for a roof removal or flap. When creating a purchase point for your spreaders in the door of the vehicle, NEVER use the spreader like a battering ram into the door edge. This could activate the airbag and have disastrous consequences on your patients or rescuers. There are several techniques that can be used for creating a purchase point that is safe and will not cause the airbag to engage. I know of a case where a squad used this technique while the medic was in the car working on the patient, and it set off the side impact bag. Luckily no one was injured, but the medic was not a happy camper.


This photograph shows the markings for a side bag that is found in the door rather than in the seat.

Always take a moment to see if the vehicle has side impact bags, if it does, there will be a tag or stamp in the seat or door to indicate there are side impact bags. It only takes a few seconds to check for this. If you see the vehicle does have side bags, then you need to rip the inner plastic molding off to expose the location of the air cylinder. These cylinders can contain from 5000 to 10,000 PSI of pressure. Cutting one of these high pressure cylinders could result in injury or death to the rescuer or any occupants that may be inside the vehicle, or folks that may be near the vehicle. If cuts need to be made, make sure they are above or below these cylinders. The few extra seconds it takes to expose these cylinders, will not hinder or impede a safe and speedy extrication. Safety is what it is all about.

Next issue we will look at curtain bags, knee bags, and seat belt tensioners. New technologies can be kept simple and understandable and with some knowledge, they will not hinder our extrication efforts. This knowledge will however, keep our rescuers and victims safe from further harm.

As I close another page in our chapter of rescue, please keep in mind the families of those who have given the ultimate, their lives, in the service of our country and the people we serve, whether they are public safety or military. Train hard, train like you respond, and stay safe. Until next time.

This illustration shows the impact series from minor to extreme.

If you have any questions or comments e-mail David Pease at [email protected] and visit the team website at
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