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Is It Time to Change Our Training Yet? Part 1: Airbag Explosions

Is It Time to Change Our Training Yet? Part 1: Airbag Explosions

Lee Junkins, Midsouth Rescue Technologies

This is a question that I ask myself, while preparing a vehicle fire class for our local department. In Oct. 2003, as a training officer for our department, I was putting a two hour class together on the dangers of vehicle fires. In a previous airbag class, I had used some pictures that I thought would be helpful in this class. In looking at these pictures, I realized that we are in more danger of airbag systems involved in fire, than we are in extrication. I started studying this and soon came to realize; that if firefighters do exactly what we teach them, they are sure to be injured. The reason being, the new technologies of today’s vehicles have been added in the exact locations, that we have taught them for years that a firefighter should be in to safely attack a vehicle fire. Today we are still teaching the same attack that was developed in the early 1970s, to avoid the dangers of bumper strut explosions, and ironically, 95% of the vehicles on the road today do not use bumper struts.

Related Video: Airbag’s reaction to fire

As I began my studies, I gathered reports of incidents and vehicle fire investigations from all over the US and Canada. The number and types of reported incidents was unbelievable. One video showed a four inch diameter hole in the roof of a vehicle, where the driver’s airbag inflator had gone through (Fig 1). Farther into the same investigation, large pieces of metal shrapnel were found over a hundred feet behind the vehicle (Fig 2).

Another incident was actually caught on video, a vehicle fire inside a garage. As the crew began to deploy their hose, the airbag and inflator blow out through the sun roof, shattering glass all over the firefighters; it hit the second story roof and fell behind the vehicle (see the white spot inside the circle) (Fig 3).

Though it happens so fast that we do not realize what the explosion is at the time, most all firefighters have seen the results of a normal airbag deployment after a fire. The bag will normally deploy and simply melt away, leaving the burnt inflator housing, as seen in (Fig 4).

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