When Tony Tracy started volunteering as a firefighter 23 years ago, airbags in cars were almost nonexistent, he said.
"Our techniques have changed completely several times over since then," said Tracy, a captain with the Sedgwick County Fire Department.
Though airbags are designed to protect, they can pose challenges for firefighters trying to extract people from wrecked vehicles. As the technology in cars changes, firefighters have to adapt, Tracy said.
Driver and passenger-side airbags are now federally mandated, and manufacturers are including more airbags in newer models — all of which can cause problems in emergency situations.
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About 100 area firefighters attended one of three sessions this week to practice their extrication techniques with newer cars. Insurance companies donated wrecked cars for them to practice on.
Bob Keith, part-owner of two local Carstar Collision Specialists, where the sessions took place, said car manufacturers also are using stronger steel in cars to protect people. Because the manufacturers try to keep cars light to use less gas yet strong enough to protect passengers, Keith said the types of steel in cars' frames can be difficult for emergency responders to cut.
"It's not your daddy's Buick anymore," Keith said. He said he first started seeing the stronger steel in cars in the repair shop about eight years ago.
At each session, firefighters spent time learning about updates to vehicles, then they practiced cutting the donated cars' frames as if passengers were trapped inside. Tracy said the sessions provided training, which makes crews faster and more effective when dealing with passengers and new technology.
"We have to do it routinely because the evolution is so constant that our training has to match it," he said.
Lt. Ryan Hall of the Wichita Fire Department said crews at his station see crashes that involve the types of cars the sessions addressed. The crews try to move the car from around the person, keeping the person as still as possible, Hall said.
"The patients are your No. 1 priority, not the vehicle," he said.
At each session, firefighters listened to Dan Crowbridge's presentation on safety issues in newer cars. Crowbridge is the regional manager for Holmatro, which sells rescue equipment.
Some vehicles in Europe and Asia have more airbags, like back-seat or head-rest airbags, than cars in the U.S., Crowbridge said. As the industry continually changes, he stressed the importance of firefighters knowing how new technology could affect them as they try to remove people from their vehicles.
"We don't know what (the manufacturers) will be coming up with down the road," Crowbridge said.