NORTH MANKATO — On this brisk afternoon, 29 men in firefighting gear are gathered around instructor Brian Staska in a South Central College parking lot while he shows them the fastest and safest way to rip apart a Ford Taurus.
Before removing the driver’s side door, he tears off plastic paneling around the shoulder seatbelt to check for airbags. Cutting through one of those can cause it to explode.
Then he uses a hydraulic spreader, better known as a Jaws of Life, to tear the door from the frame. He starts by sticking the tool in the now-empty windowframe, spreading it into a vertical “Y” shape as the door crunches and starts to give way. Next, he spreads the door apart on the side, between the door panels, exposing the door’s hinges.
Soon, he rips off the door entirely and applies the tool to the steering wheel. The plastic-covered steering wheel has only an aluminum core, but it isn’t easy to cut apart.
His goal is to cut off the top half of the wheel and turn it around, creating a few more inches of space for a crash victim to be pulled free. But there are no keys around, and the steering wheel on this particular vehicle won’t budge without them.
These relatively simple cuts, he said, can save firefighters the time of lifting the whole dash console.
Next, he attaches a chain to the brake pedal and three of the men count down, “three ... two ... one,” and pull it free. Compared to the massive hydraulic spreader, using a chain is almost elegant.
Victims’ feet can sometimes get wedged behind these pedals, usually the brake, the teacher says.
Then he gets the class to turn this car, along with a nearby Dodge Stratus, into a convertible by making six or so cuts and peeling the roofs back. After some quick cleanup, class is dismissed.
Staska, the instructor, works in Austin and coordinates training in his part of the state. His Mankato counterpart is Bob Scheidt, a fire and rescue consultant at SCC.
The weekend fire training, attended this year by more than 800 firefighters and instructors, is held every year at SCC. The school offers 47 classes, in four-, eight- or 12-hour varieties.
New this year is a class on handling fires around liquefied petroleum gas tanks. An LP tank was brought in from a nearby farm co-op, filled with water and set aflame to demonstrate how a relief valve works. The valve shunts off pressure and heat when the contents of an LP tank start to boil and expand, a possible precursor to an explosion.
The school is also putting together a class for fires at corn-drying machines, though it wasn’t ready in time for this weekend.