Program trains firefighters to remove people from vehicles

July 10, 2012

By Kirsten Johnson

Firefighters practice stabilizing an inverted vehicle in a scenario to extricate potential injured passengers at an accident scene in a F.R.E.E. class held in Burlington. The training emphasis on rescuer safety and speed are keys to successful future rescue efforts. By Mark Lovell

Mark Lovell, marketing director of Precision Collision, was just 7 years old when his mother was killed in a car accident.

Now, Lovell is a champion of the national, nonprofit program First Responder Emergency Extrication, or F.R.E.E. It provides firefighters across the country with free training and technical information regarding how to remove people from wrecked vehicles.

“It really exists just to save lives,” Lovell said. “To be able to pass on information that could prevent that for someone else’s family is huge — it’s a huge value to the firefighters.”

The National Auto Body Council sponsors the program, and member auto body shops around the country choose to participate and provide all of the training. Precision Collision puts together all of the classes in Washington.

About 30 percent of Eastside Fire & Rescue first responders have been trained through F.R.E.E. and last year, a class was held in Issaquah. Since the program was launched in March 2010, firefighters from almost all of the fire departments in the state have attended F.R.E.E. sessions.

A class is held every few months. Half of the four-hour session is a presentation that covers topics such as car construction, airbag locations and firefighter hazards, and the other half offers hands-on training using new, popular vehicles including hybrids.

“The ability to take our tools out and literally go cut apart and pull people out, and just see what works and what doesn’t work is hugely appreciated on our part,” said Greg Tryon, chief deputy for operations for EFR. “At an accident scene, literally every minute does count — anything we can do to be better trained is essentially life saving.”

Vehicles are donated by local businesses. The local Enterprise Rent-a-Car has donated a Toyota Prius to each class in the state. Tracy Hoffman, owner of West Coast Fire and Rescue and a former firefighter who instructs each training session, said a big benefit of the program is the rare chance for firefighters to practice extrication on newer car models rather than “old junkers” from a tow yard.

“Every situation is different, even two cars that are identical can be completely different to extricate from,” he said. “We’re seeing metals that we didn’t see in cars five or 10 years ago.

“I don’t think the car industry is going to slow down anytime soon as far as the new advances that they’re putting into them, so it’s something that we have to continuously keep up on.”

Lovell said he hopes the program will help prevent tragedies for others, like what he experienced growing up.

“I take it very professionally and personally — if this training had been available back then, maybe my mother wouldn’t have been killed,” he said. “This is something we’re really trying to reach out and do for the community.”

Kirsten Johnson was a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.
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