‘We prepare for the worst and hope for the best’
by BETH ALTENA
Within the last month, Courtland Township firefighters, Cannon Township firefighters and Cedar Springs firefighters all responded to what could be a devastating event: accidents involving school buses. Luckily there were no students on two Rockford school bus accidents this year, but with 870,000 students riding buses daily in the United States, it makes sense for firefighters to be as prepared as possible for the eventual call.
“Everyone’s got school buses in their area,” said instructor Kevin Sehlmeyer, of Rescue Resources LLC of Rockford, who provided the training along with two other instructors.
Twenty firefighters attended the daylong class at Courtland Fire Station, 7480 14 Mile Road, Rockford. They came from departments across West Michigan, including the cities of Reed City, Sturgis, Cedar Springs, Big Rapids, and the townships of Grattan, Oakfield, Courtland and Plainfield.
“You don’t often get a chance to do this kind of training,” said Courtland Fire Chief Micky Davis.
A former church school bus, donated by Louis Padnos Iron & Metal, was the simulated school bus on which firefighters practiced.
Training was as much what not to do as what to do. Hands-on, Sehlmeyer demonstrated techniques and then allowed each of the firefighters to have their own turn. From breaking and removing the glass in the windows to finding the best lines to cut through the body of the bus, training concentrated on getting first responders into the vehicle as fast and safely as possible.
“If we were doing this on the street the idea is to get us in and the kids out as soon as possible,” said Sehlmeyer. He pointed out some things not to do: leave hanging chunks of metal around the edges of the access holes, what he called “head dingers.”
“Even if we have our helmets on, a lot of rescue and EMS personnel don’t have helmets.”
The same is true for the tools not being used for a moment. Sehlmeyer advised his class to set them down behind the wheels or under the bus where they aren’t a tripping hazard for rescuers or patients. Ripping open a school bus is a different animal than a family vehicle. Sehlmeyer noted there is more layers of steel to be cut.
In bus crashes, the “jaws of life” are less effective in providing an access hole to victims as the hydraulic rescue tool tends to crumple and crush, leaving an opening that is less conducive to moving firefighters in and kids out.
“In a bus extrication, I prefer recipicating saws and air chisels over hydraulic rescue tools. When you use hydraulic rescue tools you can get a very crude, mushed up opening.”
Sehlmeyer showed firefighters the saw blades he prefers to use, and said through training demos like this, he has found a brand that works better and holds up longer than most other saw blades. Although, he said that during the one-day’s demonstration, firefighters would go through five or six during practice.
Buses vary greatly in design and construction, so first responders are not likely to know exactly what they will find under the body of the vehicle. Some seats have steel rods in them, others don’t. He said school buses do have regulations—ideally bus drivers are supposed to be able to push out the windshield with a certain amount of force and width of aisle and placing of the fuel tank are all under strict rules, but other options remain unregulated. He said he doesn’t see school bus seatbelt requirements coming anytime soon—definitely a factor in a crash.
“You want to go in, take out a window and put someone inside,” Sehlmeyer stated.
Having a firefighter in the bus is a great asset to the successful cutting of the access hole and evaluating for injuries. Interior obstacles—staying away from heater hoses and making sure a child isn’t on the other side of the panel—make a difference in deciding where to choose to cut.
For getting the window glass out, Sehlmeyer noted that duct tape on the glass is important, but not pretty. “It doesn’t have to be perfect. You aren’t wrapping a package.” He told the class to get the tape on, burnish it to get a good grip on the glass, and then make the break. “The goal is to get someone on the bus fast to start triage.”
Sehlmeyer explained a difficulty unique to larger vehicles and school buses is the height at which first responders have to operate saws, air chisels and hydraulic rescue tools.
“Nothing is easily done at a bus accident. It’s all over your head.”
He advised making use of available objects to help with raising firefighters to the work—at other bus extrication training students have used a picnic table from a park, other students have used cinder blocks and a panel to make a work platform in a junk yard.
Another unique feature of a bus accident is the narrow aisle through the seats. “You won’t be getting a stretcher or backboard through there,” said Sehlmeyer.
Students may be removed by sliding them across seat tops to an opening created by firefighters on a back board, and lowering them feet first is far preferable than head first, which adds to the distress and panic of the situation.
Chief Davis said another factor rescuers will have to take into account are parents. “How many kids nowadays have a cell phone? The first call they are going to make is to mom and dad to tell them they are in a crash.”
Another factor to take in is the noise the rescue operations make in sawing, breaking glass. Inside the bus the sound is amplified and literally deafening. Assistant Fire Chief Terry Welch said rescuers need to let frightened passengers know the noise is part of getting them help.
Sehlmeyer said his company offers all sorts of training from vehicle and school bus extrication to fire tactics. Through attending training classes, he became interested in Genesis hydraulic rescue tools, a brand for which he is now the Michigan dealer. He said his company offers the training to help firefighters use the hydraulic tools to their best ability.
“That’s what’s different about my company. I don’t just sell a rescue tool and say ‘There you go.’ We train them how to use them effectively,” said Sehlmeyer.
Constant training, he stated, is important because technology—both in rescue tools and especially vehicle construction—is changing rapidly. Today’s rescue tools often are able to be changed quickly due to new couplers, a newer development that is a great asset when changing from one rescue tool to another is required. Cars, too, are being constructed today of Ultra High Strength Steel (UHSS), thus new vehicles are harder to cut. The cutting force of today’s newer cutters is necessary to respond in accidents involving 2010 and newer cars.
“There are fire departments in Kent County right now that can’t make some cuts into newer cars,” said Sehlmeyer.
Sehlmeyer said he took the plunge to become a representative for Genesis Rescue Tools about six years ago and is proud many fire departments now carry the line. He shared a fire department in the U.P. which covered a stretch of road famous for fatalities had no hydraulic rescue tools until 2008. The department had to rely on the assistance of a fire department, located a clear hour away. That fire chief said he’d seen dozens of people die in cars because there were no tools to get them out.
Welch said time of day can also be a factor in a bus accident. He noted that for each child on a bus, two rescue professionals are required to extricate and treat them.
“If we are taking forty kids to the hospital, that is a lot of EMTs and rescue,” he stated. “Northern Kent County is really great at mutual aid. We all come to each other’s aid. If this was an accident with thirty or forty kids, a lot of resources would go into it. This has been great training.”