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Published: Sunday, 7/23/2006

Rescuers wary of hybrids' high voltage

BY LAREN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
A rescue crew works to extricate a driver from a Toyota Prius after an accident near Olympia, Wash. With more hybrid cars on the road, rescuers are increasingly subject to a risk of electrical shock. A rescue crew works to extricate a driver from a Toyota Prius after an accident near Olympia, Wash. With more hybrid cars on the road, rescuers are increasingly subject to a risk of electrical shock.
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Area firefighters say it's not knowing that worries them the most.

It's not knowing if the car involved in an accident is a hybrid with hundreds of volts of electricity flowing through it.

It's not knowing if the safety system, which is supposed to shut off the high-voltage current in an accident, worked properly.

What is certain is that with gasoline prices rising to $3 a gallon and beyond, electric hybrids are becoming more and more popular. Electric hybrid cars use a combination of a gasoline motor and a high-voltage electric motor that operates with as much as 500 volts.

Area fire officials say the increasing popularity of hybrids could bring a greater potential for injury or electrocution for rescue personnel trying to remove an injured person from a wrecked hybrid with hydraulic metal spreaders and cutters like the Hurst "Jaws of Life" or a metal-cutting saw if proper precautions aren't taken first. A good Samaritan passer-by who uses a tire iron or crowbar to help pry open a wrecked door before emergency personnel arrive might likewise be at risk.

"It's a tremendous electrical hazard," said Toledo fire Lt. Michael Maraldo, who is based at Station No. 5 at Washington and Ontario streets.

Honda and Toyota, leaders in the production of hybrids, insist the safety shutoffs on their vehicles should prevent injury or death to rescue personnel in the event their vehicles are involved in a crash. But fire officials aren't so sure.

Because they are relatively new and there are fewer of them on the road, many area fire departments in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan have not experienced an accident involving an electric hybrid vehicle.

From Jan. 1 to July 5, only 847 of a total 122,260 property-damage, injury, or fatal accidents in Ohio have involved Honda Insight or Toyota Prius electric hybrids.

Michigan State Police do not keep accident statistics by vehicle model and could not provide similar statistics for hybrids there.

As a result, many firefighters only know the potential dangers hybrids pose to them through safety information they have read from manufacturers and what they've learned from training programs or videos.

Meanwhile, hybrid sales have surged, with nearly 200,000 sold nationwide last year - more than double the number sold in 2004, according to R.L. Polk & Co., a Southfield, Mich., firm that collects and interprets automotive data.

Tax breaks and other incentives being offered by several states for purchasing hybrids have increased interest; the Michigan Legislature is considering legislation that would offer such incentives.

"There's more and more out there," said Battalion Fire Chief Matt Traver of the Findlay Fire Department.

Lt. Michael Imber of the Defiance Fire Department said he doesn't think the increasing number of hybrid cars on the roads necessarily means an increased risk to firefighters.

"I don't know if it's making it any more dangerous; it's just being more aware, using precaution, and knowing your vehicle," he said.

Honda and Toyota say they try to minimize the risk to firefighters by marking high-voltage wires in bright-orange casing to make them highly visible to firefighters and rescue crews. The casing is also supposed to protect the wires from being damaged.

The high-voltage wires run underneath the center of Honda and Toyota electric hybrids, in a position where car manufacturers say it would be difficult to accidentally cut them.

"It would take a pretty determined person to cut that wiring," said David Lee, product education administrator at Toyota's corporate headquarters in Torrance, Calif.

Mr. Lee said safety systems installed in Toyota's hybrids are designed so that if the car is struck with enough force to deploy the air bags, a simultaneous signal is sent to shut off the electricity.

"The high-voltage wiring, if it's performed properly, would be carrying no current - [the wiring] should be dead," Mr. Lee said. "I can see no concern for rescue personnel having to be at any more risk there than they would have with a [regular] car."

But Lieutenant Maraldo said the "potential for risk is always there" because anything can happen to a vehicle in the brutal force of a crash.

"It may work fine in testing circumstances and engineering design, but given all the things that can happen in an accident, there's no guarantee things are going to work the way it's supposed to," Lieutenant Maraldo said. "We operate as if everything [in the vehicle's electrical system] is live."

Toledo fire Capt. Ken Gehring agreed: "Those [safety shutoffs] are all questionable on whether it works after impact."

Honda spokesman Chris Martin said the possibility for a safety system malfunction always exists, but he emphasized that it's "very unlikely."

"If the system didn't get input from the computer saying everything was OK, it wouldn't run. It wouldn't transfer energy back and forth," he said. "Even if there was a minor malfunction, it would default to the safe mode."

If safety systems somehow malfunction and electricity is still flowing through the high-voltage wires, however, fire officials say using the Jaws of Life to extract someone from a hybrid vehicle could be potentially deadly.

As a result, Lieutenant Maraldo said, "Until we're completely sure the line is de-energized, cutting is never an option."

The chances of a passer-by who approaches an accident before rescue crews being electrocuted by helping an injured victim out of a hybrid vehicle are extremely small, Honda and Toyota officials say.

Honda hybrids are designed in a way that the electrical system is grounded internally, so unless someone "shoved a crowbar into a battery pack or into one of the high-voltage wires," it is unlikely they would be electrocuted, Mr. Martin said.

But he added, "we can't 100 percent guarantee" that electrocution won't occur.

"There's always a chance," he said.

Area firefighters said they try to read everything they can to educate themselves about hybrid vehicles. But until they respond to one in an accident, they don't know exactly what to expect, Lieutenant Maraldo said.

"Twelve volts versus 300 to 500 volts is a completely different animal," he said.

Contact Laren Weber at: lweber@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.



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