Article for Medill: Saving the mannequins

Six firefighters from the Glenview Fire Department will head for Rockford in spring to tear apart cars like the rest of us tear apart paper.

They’ll be competing with approximately a dozen other teams of firefighters in the annual Midwest Regional Extrication Challenge to save the life of a mannequin trapped in a car bulldozed into a tight knot of metal.

Teams have 20 minutes to assess a simulated accident scene, create an extrication plan and safely remove the mannequin from of the crumpled car. They will cut, push, slice and pull with air chisels, rams, winches, saws, and heavy hydraulic tools such as the metal splitters sometimes referred to as the “Jaws of Life.” Three judges will watch every move they make, giving out points for teamwork, leadership and technique, said Lt. Larry Wysocki, captain of the Glenview Fire Department extrication team.

Over the past 11 years, the competition in Rockford has helped prepare firefighters from Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin for real rescues involving extrication. Any fire department can compete if they pay an entrance fee of roughly $250, Wysocki said. Captain James Walters of the Skokie Fire Department joked that his extrication crews could compete with any of the others teams though they have not ever participated in the competition.

Wysocki said his team is “good as any team” going to the competition. “Winning the competition is gravy,” he said, because the competition’s main benefit is educational.

The competition includes a seminar about contemporary extrication issues, such as continually evolving car design. Airbags and automatically activated roll bars on some newer models of cars run the risk being activated and injuring the passenger or firefighter during an extrication, said Chief Craig Wilt of the Cherry Valley Fire Protection District, which hosts the competition. The seminar teaches ways to avoid activating the devices.

Watching other fire departments perform extrications has been “incredibly educational,” Wysocki said. Also useful is extrication equipment presented by manufacturers at the competition, such as the buttress braces Wysocki found at one year’s competition. The braces help stabilize a car to protect the trapped person from further injury. Wysocki also found a hacksaw, called the “Glassmaster,” designed to cut through windshields.

This equipment helps firefighters get accident victims to a hospital within 60 minutes of the accident. Wysocki said firefighters refer to it as “the golden hour.” The Glenview Fire Department extricates 10 to 20 people per year, Wysocki said.

“Ultimately, we’re all thinking about that golden hour,” Wysocki said.

About 10 years ago, the Glenview Fire Department had a “golden hour” of its own.
It competed in the midwest regional competition for the first time and won, going on to the international competition in Louisville, Ky. Australian, German and English teams used extrication techniques similar to American techniques, Wysocki said, and the German and English team even used some of the same Dutch-manufactured equipment used by the Americans.

Outside of competitions, the Glenview Fire Department hones its extrication skills twice a year at Red’s Auto Body Shop, 1904 Lehigh Ave, Wysocki said. The shop tows abandoned cars and supplies them to local fire departments along with a storage lot for a practice area.

“We’re the only ones who have the inventory [of cars] to offer them,” said Vince Pisha, general manager at Red’s. “Sometimes they’ll [local fire departments] do 30 cars a month.”

Removing a person trapped within a car used to be called “disentanglement,” Wysocki said. Because there were no powerful and portable extrication tools in the past, firefighters often had to work around the car’s distorted shape, carefully pulling the trapped person free – like cutting a hole to the center of a peach and trying to pull out the seed out through the hole. Now, with the lighter and more powerful hydraulic tools, firefighters simply cut or bend the car free from the trapped person – slicing free the meat of the peach to reveal the seed in the center.

“We’re talking tens of thousands of pounds of cutting or spreading force,” Wysocki said. “The cutters we have will cut the posts of the car like butter.”

First, second, and third-place awards will be given to extrication competitors in each of three different categories, Wilt said.

The “limited” competition category allows firefighters to use non-gas-powered, hand tools during the extrication. The “unlimited” competition category allows them to use gas-powered, hydraulic tools. Depending on the accident, tools from both categories are used in real situations.

The third “overall” category combines the points earned in the limited and unlimited competition categories. The team with the most overall points will have a guaranteed place in the international competition. The Cherry Valley Fire Protection district will also use the regional competition’s entrance fees, paid by all teams, to pay for the winning team’s entrance fee to the international competition.

A fourth “rapid” competition category with a time limit of 10 minutes, regularly done in European extrication competitions, is under consideration in the United States, said Captain Elgin H. Browning, webmaster for the Transportation Emergency Rescue Committee, an organization working with coordinators of the extrication competitions.

The Northern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy (NIPSTA), a coalition of approximately 20 local villages, will probably decide within a year whether to run a local extrication competition at the former Glenview Naval Air Station, Wysocki said.

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