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Chuck Sulkala on New NABC Initiatives

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The National Auto Body Council (NABC) has a mission to improve the image of the collision repair industry. To achieve that, the NABC has created programs like the PRIDE awards and Recycled Rides. Most recently, the organization launched the First Responders Emergency Extrication (FREE) program in March 2010. The program provides emergency first responders with information about today’s advanced vehicles to help improve safety at the scene of an automobile accident.

FenderBender’s Andrew Johnson sat down with Chuck Sulkala, executive director of the NABC, to discuss the FREE program, and how it has helped emergency first responders on our streets.

What is the NABC FREE program?

The First Responder Emergency Extrication program is one of our community-based efforts. We realized that fire department first responders might not have the latest information on modern vehicles—steels, construction, airbag locations and electrical issues—that they need in order to safely remove people from wrecked vehicles.

Our goal is to work with repair shops across the country and the insurance industry to provide a four-hour training for first responders. Repair shops provide the facility to hold the events, and insurers often donate the vehicles. We show firefighters some of the latest steels, and how to safely identify and get around some of the critical areas in today’s advanced vehicles.

What does FREE aim to accomplish?

Our goal is to get involved with fire departments that can’t afford to pay for this kind of training. Many fire departments in smaller areas simply don’t have the funds. They can’t even afford to buy late-model vehicles to practice on, not to mention the training needed to describe the latest makes and proper techniques to get into those vehicles.

New materials and technology in today’s vehicles have certainly posed challenges for repairers. What kinds of problems have emergency first responders had with new model vehicles?

Many problems for first responders have resulted from the new high-strength steels present in vehicles today. Their ability to cut through certain vehicles with their equipment has been significantly lessened.

In addition, the positioning of air bag canisters changes on every vehicle. An airbag canister might be right in the middle of what would normally be a typical cut zone. In the past, for example, if a first responder was going to cut a vehicle on the windshield A-pillar, they would normally cut the vehicle down the middle. But now there are airbag canisters in there for side airbags. If those canisters are cut through, that’s a bomb waiting to go off. You can cause some severe damage to both the passenger in the car and the first responder who is trying to get them out.

What is the key element of the FREE program for emergency first responders to understand?

The key for first responders is to understand how to get into vehicles without cutting through an electric line, an airbag canister or other vehicle technologies that could be hazardous. That’s the most important thing: first responders can have all the tools in the world—even old ones will get the job done—but if they’re cutting vehicles in the wrong place, that could result in a serious problem.

So what techniques should emergency first responders use to safely remove passengers from wrecked cars?

In the old days after a crash, first responders would take the doors off the vehicle and slide passengers out the side of the car. But that’s a problem: When you pull a passenger sideways out of a vehicle, you risk a shearing type of effect on their nerves and backbone. That can cause the passenger to become a quadriplegic, and really devastate their life. You can’t help doing it; that’s simply what happens.

First responders have now realized that if they peel the roof off the vehicle, lower the seat back and slide a backboard underneath the passenger, they’re able to pull the person out flat—as opposed to sideways. This significantly reduces the chances of paralyzing the passenger.

To use this technique, first responders now have to cut through a vehicle’s side pillars. The difficulty arises when airbags are sitting in their way. This is information that many emergency first responders don’t have.

How much does NABC charge participants to attend FREE?

Like the name suggests, we provide the training to first responders free. We’re not doing this to sell equipment, we’re not here to make money, and our trainers don’t get paid.

This sounds like such a great opportunity for any first responder. Which emergency first responders should attend FREE events?

The program is designed primarily for firefighters, because they have the equipment used to cut into vehicles. Some EMTs attend, too.

Who facilitates these programs?

We want to make sure that first responders are provided with an absolute consistency of materials. In order to ensure that we present the latest and most quality information, we at the NABC put on the presentations, rather than personnel at the shop that happens to be hosting the event.

We have two trainers. Bob Brown, the national trainer for Holmatro Rescue Equipment, does the extrication technique training. And Toby Chess presents the latest in vehicle technical information.

Most of the technical information presented comes from I-CAR. I-CAR has the latest information on where the high-strength steels are in certain vehicles. We use OEM sources for the latest information on airbag, air canister and hazardous material locations in vehicles.

With only two trainers to carry out a nationwide program, they must be quite the road warriors!

We try to have at least two or three events planned in each area where we have the program, within about a 100-mile radius. That helps to lessen the cost factor and travel.

It must be a lot of work to put one of these on. What are the requirements for shops that want to host an event?

The shops that participate need to be a member of the NABC. We ask them for a $100 participation fee to help cover some of the administrative costs associated with the event.

We ask them to be an NABC member because we want to make sure the shops doing this are furthering the goals of the NABC. We’re proud of the collision repair industry, and we’re asking shops to help support our efforts to improve the image of the industry.
We’re looking for quality shops that represent the industry in a very positive light, and aren’t concerned only about improving their reputation. The goal of FREE events is not just to promote the host shops, but to promote the quality of the people in the industry.

Does the NABC look for several shops to work together to host the events, or could an MSO hold events at a few of their locations?

Big and small repairers are welcome. In some cases, a single shop will partner with two or three other shops to put on events in a particular area. For example, in Montana, three different shops in the Missoula and Billings area hosted three events in that state.

Precision Collision in Washington, which has 13 locations, hosted three FREE events at three of their locations last spring. In fact, Precision Collision was the first organization to do one of the programs. They hosted three more events in fall 2010 in three different locations.

It must be tough finding vehicles for first responders to practice on. Where does the NABC acquire vehicles to use for each event?

It has been difficult getting some late model vehicles donated for these events. That continues to be one of our stumbling blocks. We like to have three or four cars to work on at each event.

We’re asking participating shops to help with this. We’ve primarily been working with insurance companies to get vehicle donations. They’ve been very helpful and supportive, but they don’t always have vehicles in areas where we need them, so we sometimes need to be a little creative. We’ve had some vehicles come from salvage yards, and we’re working with 800-Charity Cars as well.

That’s great you’ve found support from insurers. What companies have backed the program?

Seven insurers have donated vehicles: AAA Insurance, American Family, Farm Bureau, Farmers, GEICO, Progressive and State Farm.

With vehicle technology evolving so rapidly, late model vehicles must be the heart of the program.

Right. It’s critical that we find newer vehicles. Fire departments need access to late model vehicles to work on because high strength steels are being added in different locations every year.

Anyone can put on a class on how to cut through old vehicles—that’s like slicing cheese. New vehicles—which use different materials and technologies—present a completely different set of circumstances for first responders. If those vehicles aren’t readily available, first responders won’t have the opportunity to practice updated procedures.

What kind of condition do vehicles have to be in to be used for the program?

We’ll take vehicles in any condition—even demolished ones. Vehicles aren’t in very good condition after getting into a major accident. That’s what first responders encounter when they come upon the scene of an accident. So the condition of donated vehicles makes no difference.

It clearly takes a lot of work to make these events a success. What kind of interest has there been from first responders?

We’ve had some glowing reviews and appreciation from fire departments and fire chiefs for having brought the program to them. We’ve got people who drive a couple hundred miles to come to the training. They really want opportunities to be able to work on late model vehicles.
Many of them have told us they’ve never worked on or had the ability to practice on these types of vehicles before. They never considered the locations of airbag containers in vehicles, and how explosive those devices could be. This is life saving, real-world information.

The average class is running with at least 30 people. We’ve had some events with nearly 60 participants. To date, the FREE program has put on 19 events, with a total of 858 first responders in attendance.

Vehicle technologies have been rapidly changing. What vehicle innovations do you see changing in the coming years that first responders ought to be aware of as they do their jobs?

There’s no question that vehicles will continue to evolve. I don’t think we’ll ever see the end of changes in modern vehicles.
As the government pressures manufacturers to produce vehicles with greater fuel efficiency, manufacturers will have to use lighter, stronger materials to accomplish that. We will start seeing even more aluminum and high strength steels used—which resist the crushability into vehicle passenger compartments.

We will also see substantially more life-saving devices inside passenger compartments. Right now, you have a wall of airbag curtains surrounding you in a vehicle. We’re going to find more of that. Those are going to have compressed gases, which means that those are going to have to be placed somewhere, too. First responders will have to watch for those developments.

Why did NABC feel compelled to create the FREE program?

The focus of the NABC is to improve the image of the industry. We look at this as one of our opportunities to give back to local communities.
The only way we’re going to be able to change the image of the industry is by everyone cleaning up their own backyard. We realized that the only way to positively change people’s opinions about the industry is for them to see firsthand how shops can positively impact their communities. If a particular shop’s customers understand the good work the shop is doing for its community, those customers’ conversations with their friends and relatives will be very positive about the collision industry.

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