9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Worst Case Scenario: Escaping a Submerged Vehicle; How to Help a Caller Escape a Sinking Automobile

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, April 2014, Part 3 or a 7-Part Series
Written by Angie Stiefermann, employed with the Jefferson City Police Department for 21 years as a CTO and for the last eight years as a telecommunications supervisor and instructor as well.  As a member of a department that encourages continuing education, Stiefermann feels a responsibility to do her part in educating others through affordable or free training with the APCO training partnership.

As a 9-1-1 calltaker, there are some unique situations that you may have never considered, or perhaps you have considered but dread the day that you might be faced with handling them.  This series aims to simplify several unique emergencies to aid you in becoming more proficient, and perhaps less intimidated, when handling those emergencies as a 9-1-1 calltaker.  In previous issues, we've discussed handling callers who have been locked in the trunk of a car, as well as callers operating a vehicle with a stuck accelerator or failing brakes.  In the future we'll examine what to ask of a passenger in a downed or troubled aircraft, a victim of a home invasion in progress, or a caller who is trapped in a house fire.  In this installment, I'm going to focus on handling a caller trapped in a submerged vehicle.

In the article, "Help, My Car is Sinking" in the Oct. 2011 issue of Public Safety Communications, expert diver Robert May suggested that many escape recommendations for this situation are ineffective.  Even Mythbusters, a television show devised to test the validity of long-existing theories, tested various notions about escaping from a sinking vehicle, not all of which were successful.  Below are the best steps to follow when aiding a caller in a submerged vehicle.

First, as with any emergency, the caller should be directed to remain calm so that you can help them -- their car may float for up to 2-10 minutes, according to May.  While their location should be obtained as quickly as possible, May suggests that time might be wasted trying to gather location information rather than leading them to safety immediately.  The caller may be confused or unaware of their location, so when triaging the call, an operator must weigh the severity and determine if time is better spent getting a location or guiding the caller to safety.  If the location is known, send rescue units immediately.  If the caller does not know their location because they are disoriented after running off the roadway, or from other contributing factors such as intoxication or a medical emergency, obtain the last road they recall traveling on, where they left from and where they were headed to.

Tell the caller to place the phone, leaving the line open, in a pocket or bra while following your instructions.  The occupant and any passengers should then be encouraged to release their seatbelts; children should be release from their restraints and helped into the front seat.  Keeping the window closed during this time should slow the rate of water entering the vehicle until all parties are successfully out of their seatbelts.  If time allows, the operator should try to determine how deep the water is and how fast the water is entering the vehicle to help determine how much risk they are in.  The goal now is for them to exit out of the window and climb on top of their vehicle.

Electric windows may still work as long as the battery has power.  The sooner they can get a window down, the better.  If a window will not open, encourage the caller to break the glass.  The best way to do so is by punching the window or using a glass-breaking tool.  Most people will not have this specific tool on hand, so direct them to find a strong pointed object, such as a key, seatbelt buckle, posts on a headrest, rearview mirror handle, etc.  At this point, they should try everything possible.

The tool should be punched into the corner of the glass, and the caller should push into the glass with their shoulder as they punch.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for an occupant to open their door once it is mostly submerged due to the outside pressure of the water against the door.  Occupants are only encouraged to try to open the door as a last resort, for this will flood the car quickly, causing it to tip and potentially trap the occupants.

If the vehicle has stopped sinking, indicating the water is shallow, the caller may be able to wade or swim to land.  In cases where the vehicle is in moving water, victims should stay on top of the vehicle and hold on tightly until it comes to a stop.  If the water is deep and the vehicle sinks quickly, the caller will be forced to swim.  They should be encouraged to remove any heavy clothing that could drag them down in the swift water.  Clothing such as jeans can also become a flotation device if they knot the legs and grasp at the waist.  According to May, this method is taught in many water safety courses.  For callers forced to swim, he recommends that they travel with the current and angle toward the shore.

In cases where a vehicle crashes through ice, occupants should follow the same procedure; however, if forced to jump, they should land flat and roll to the bank to avoid breaking through the ice.  If the vehicle hasn't initially broken through the ice, it likely will soon.

If not all of the vehicle's occupants are ambulatory, the most agile should escape out of the window first and then assist others in crawling through the window.  A hysterical caller  may be inclined to fight the waters and should be reminded that the option remains for them to float if forced to enter the water.

First, quickly obtain a location and dispatch rescue units.  Ask the caller if they are able to communicate with the victim(s).  Encourage them to have the occupants roll down their windows, climb out and get on top of the car.

If the caller asks if they should attempt a rescue, warn them that they must be an excellent swimmer to do so.  If they wish to attempt a rescue, encourage them to take a tool to break the window if it isn't already open.  Submerged windows are more difficult to break -- if one of the vehicle's windows remains above water, they may wish to try that window first.

In the case of a submerged vehicle, time is of the essence, as is keeping a level head.  Encouraging your callers to remain calm and follow teh steps outlined here will allow them to make the most of the moments that could save lives.  As a 9-1-1 calltaker, it pays to address worst-case scenarios of this kind in order to provide callers with the best chance of survival.

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