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Training Day: Vehicle stabilization

By utilizing a few simple steps when dealing with MVCs, crews can ensure they are dealing with a stable vehicle to better protect themselves and their patient


With any incident, a “size up” must be performed to determine the level of safety of the scene prior to entry.


“Hey, hey, hey, the car is rolling!”

This is what I shouted to a group of younger firefighters as I approached the vehicle. We had been dispatched to a one-car motor vehicle crash (MVC) with an injured person trapped inside. What we found when we arrived on scene was a small sedan on the side of a residential street with heavy damage to the driver’s door. The driver had lost control of the vehicle and struck a large brick mailbox, which crushed the driver door in to the point it would need to be opened with an extrication tool.

I was a ladder truck driver at that time in my career and was securing my apparatus as the other firefighters and my crew were heading to the vehicle. They had pulled the power unit and spreaders off the engine and were preparing to force the door as I walked up. The street had about a 15-degree grade and the vehicle was angled toward the curb, but downhill.

As they started to operate the tool on the door, the force caused the vehicle to roll forward with the patient still inside toward other fire units on scene. As I shouted to the other firefighters that the car was rolling, another crewmember tossed a wooden 4x4 block of cribbing under the rear tire of the car, stopping any further forward movement. Ok, that was close! The others just stood in shock for a few seconds, realizing and processing their mistake. They had become so focused on the extrication of the patient, they had forgotten to stabilize the vehicle before proceeding.

Utilize basic vehicle stabilization techniques first

With any incident, a “size up” must be performed to determine the level of safety of the scene prior to entry. Evaluate the scene before you do anything and remain focused. Stabilizing the vehicle should be one of the first things we do when we come upon a scene like this.

Make it a priority to have a few sections of cribbing, preferably wooden 4x4s around 18 inches long in a compartment that someone can grab quickly when arriving at an MVC. These can easily be placed under the tires before anyone even touches the vehicle. Have a short section of rope attached, so the cribbing can be removed if needed without placing your hand close to the vehicle.

Once these are in place, if possible, ensure that the vehicle is in “Park” and the ignition is turned to the off positon. This will allow the transmission to hold the vehicle in place and may keep it from moving.

The next step would be to engage the parking brake, if this can be accomplished. Many modern cars have the parking brake handle next to the driver’s seat, which can be pulled up to lock the rear tires from moving, hopefully stabilizing the vehicle. However, if you are working to remove a patient from a vehicle and the parking brake handle is in the way, do not disengage the brake until you have confirmed that the vehicle is not going to move if you let the brake off. I have seen this happen, and it is easy to let the handle down when focused on removing the patient, but it’s not good for the vehicle to start moving during that process. Always have a second means of holding the vehicle in place.

Once you have the most basic protections in place, you can place other sections of cribbing or lifting bags under the edge of the vehicle and use struts to keep it from moving or rocking. This is to further stabilize the suspension, which may move during the removal of a patient from the vehicle.

Perform vehicle stabilization every time, regardless of incident severity

When training in the area, a simple scenario is to place a vehicle in a level asphalt parking lot. Have your crew dress to the level of required safety, which would be in their complete turnout or bunker gear. Ensure they have fire or extrication gloves on while working with cribbing or any type of tool. They should come off their fire apparatus prepared to complete a quick size up of the scene and then stabilize the vehicle.

Items that must occur:

  • Position fire apparatus to protect firefighters and other first responders from oncoming traffic.
  • All crew members are properly dressed in full turnout gear – not just a safety vest. If the company officer determines crewmembers can downgrade to safety vest, they can at that time, but, ideally, crews should come off the truck in full turnout gear.
  • The company officer should designate someone to place “quick cribbing” under rear tires.
  • Ensure that vehicle transmission is in the “Park” position.
  • Ensure the ignition is turned to the off position.
  • Ensure that vehicle parking brake is engaged.
  • Place additional stabilization tools at the company officer’s discretion.

This simple training scenario does not sound that important; however, the physical damage a 4,000-pound vehicle can do, even at a slow speed, can be devastating.

Be safe and train hard!

Chief Keith Padgett serves as the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Academic Program Director with Columbia Southern University within the College of Safety and Emergency Services. A 42-year member of the fire service, Padgett previously served as fire chief of the Beulah Fire District in Valley, Alabama, and as the chief/fire marshal for the Fulton County Fire-Rescue Department in Atlanta. He is presently the Co-Chair of the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) EMS curriculum workgroup. He also served as a Specialty Educational Board member for the IAFC Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) Section as the chair of the Professional Development/Higher Education sub-committee as well as a director-at-large board member on the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section. Padgett completed the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program through the National Fire Academy and has a Chief Fire Officer Destination through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). He holds a master’s degree in leadership with an emphasis in disaster preparedness and executive fire leadership and a bachelor’s degree in public safety administration. Connect with Padgett on LinkedIn or via email.

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