Technical Article

Airbag Safety 

Rescue Guidelines for Vehicles Equipped with Airbags 

No one doubts that airbags save lives and reduce injury. However after an accident an un-deployed airbag can become a danger to the rescuer and patient alike. Although it is rare airbags can suddenly deploy during rescue operations and it is important to recognise the presence of airbags, which at the present time can be in about 27 known locations within certain vehicles. 

At this time, manufactures can only provide an airbag restraint or protection system for bags which deploy from the steering wheel. Automobile engineers have now located airbags, tubes and curtains just above the doors and at knee height in addition to the more common locations such as the steering column and passenger side. 

Seat belt pre-tensioners and other live deployment devices such as a pyrotechnic device in the form of a gas generator especially designed for side impact protection, are located in places like the seat frame, door pillars and normally not far from the place you would be making your strategic cuts to complete a relief cut.. 

To identify the presence of airbags it is important to look for key words, letters and labels such as "Supplemental" "Inflatable" "Restraint" " Airbag" "SIR" "SRS" or "SIPS" on the steering wheel, instrument panel, dashboard, windscreen, sun visor, on the side or back of the seat and on the door pillars. 

If you still can't identify whether the vehicle is fitted with airbags and there is no evidence of deployment assume it has them, especially if it is more modern vehicle. Disconnect the power to the airbag system, to do this turn the engine off and disconnect or cut both of the battery cables. Disconnect the negative connection first and in the case of a severe crash make certain that the battery case has not been penetrated with metal body parts that could retain the electrical circuit. 

Even having completed the above procedure because some vehicles are fitted with a back-up system it may take up to 30 minutes to deactivate, but most fortunately will take a minute or less. 

After a battery is disconnected, it is possible for static electricity to deploy an airbag and static can be generated by the use of cutting equipment, personnel simply sliding across a seat, cutting seat belts and many other normal rescue actions. Therefore it is wise to treat airbag systems as if they were live all of the time. 

Some further examples of smart developments include the use of ultra-sonic sensors that monitor occupancy of the seats and prevent airbag deployment if the seat is not occupied. There is also some infrared technology designed to detect a driver or passenger who is out of position, roll over protection for infant seats and warning display lights if people are seated too close to airbags or when they put their feet up on the dashboard. Engineers are also completing work on airbags that can deploy twice in the same incident if the vehicle has a head on impact spins and is again hit head on. 

Standard firefighting procedures can be carried out on vehicles fitted with airbags and any extinguishing agent is suitable. In the event of the fire involving the passenger compartment the airbags may deploy. In such a case the bag will inflate as normal, the gas propellant will burn off without any fragmentation of the component parts. 

Because airbags deploy in only moderate to severe impact situations it is possible that a rescue may be required from a vehicle where the airbags have not deployed. If that is the situation the following procedures should be adopted. 

  • Determine whether an airbag is fitted be checking for the key words, letters and labels on the vehicle. 

  • Turn off the ignition and disconnect both battery connections, negative connection first. Note: disconnecting the battery may not immediately immobilise the airbag system as mentioned previously 

  • Move the seat of the stabilised occupant as far back as possible or alternatively lower the seat back. 

  • Always carry out the rescue from the side of the vehicle away from the potential deployment path. 

  • Do not position your body, tools or any other objects in front of un-deployed airbags. 

  • Do not cut into the steering column of a vehicle fitted with an airbag. You can however cut through the steering wheel rim to help free the patient. 

Normal rescue procedures can be used on vehicles where the bags have deployed and there is no danger of hazardous medical consequences provided normal hand and eye protection gear such as gloves and safety glasses are used to guard against possible skin irritation from the powdery air bag residue. 

New Zealand Fire Brigades Institute           info.nzfbi@gmail.com