Vehicle Escape

Jeff Clawson, M.D.

Jeff Clawson, M.D.

Mike Thompson

Mike Thompson

Ask Doc

Dear Academy,
I see countless people trapped in cars, and they can’t break the glass. It’s almost impossible by using a hand or foot. You should add to your protocol that all headrests are required by auto safety rules to be removable to use to break the windows. You pull them out and use the pointed long adjustment bars to break glass; it can save lives. A civilian trying to help can use theirs to get to a trapped person. Please try to pass on this easy solution to save a lot of people.
Thank you.

The Academy recently received, as paraphrased above, a comment regarding emergent escape from a vehicle. This particular subject is one the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (IAED) has studied extensively over the last 20+ years. The very first version of the Fire Priority Dispatch System (FPDS®), released in the year 2000, contained instructions for escape from an occupied sinking vehicle. Since that time, instructions have significantly evolved, and instructions have also been added for escape from an occupied burning vehicle.

We have studied this issue in collaboration with Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, Ph.D., at the University of Manitoba (Canada) who specializes in the study of drowning physiology and prevention as well as prevention of vehicle submersion deaths. While we have concentrated much of our past and recent research on the sinking vehicle escape problem, many of the same principles and techniques we have found also apply to a person trapped in a burning vehicle, for which we also have PAIs. Dr. Giesbrecht and his staff have scientifically submerged several hundred vehicles of different types with the goal of testing and validating emergent vehicle escape methods. The Academy has worked closely with him on these studies with the goal of having better and better dispatch protocols and instructions available for Emergency Dispatchers when such a call is made requesting assistance with vehicle escape in either of these situations.

You mentioned the use of a vehicle headrest to break a window to facilitate vehicle escape. Please allow me to relate to you what we have learned after years of testing various methods of vehicle escape. One of the first things we learned is if you get to the point a vehicle window has to be broken to facilitate vehicle escape, the situation is very dire and the odds of the occupant surviving go down dramatically as both occupied sinking vehicle and occupied burning vehicle are extremely time-sensitive incidents. Our best data indicates that if you don’t escape one of these incidents in a minute to a minute and a half, the odds of surviving are extremely slim.

The first method of escape, if it has to be done through a window, should be to roll the window or windows down before an effort is made to break windows. We have discovered that even with a sinking vehicle that is partially submerged, the electrical systems will still typically function for some period of time and the windows can still be rolled down. A key piece to accomplishing this is to leave the ignition (or key) on. This is sometimes overlooked in an emergent situation; our initial instructions make a point of assuring that the ignition (or key) is on to facilitate rolling a window down. The same principles apply to a burning vehicle, but the primary method of escape from a burning vehicle should be  through a functioning door first and then a window second if there is not a door that can be opened. A key piece to accomplishing this is to unlock the doors and leave the ignition (or key) on if a window has to be used. This is sometimes overlooked in an emergent situation, and once again, our initial instructions make a point of assuring that the doors are unlocked and the ignition (or key) is on prior to attempting to escape through a door or a window if that is necessary.

The potential use of the vehicle’s headrest to break a window was brought to us some time ago, and at first blush it sounded reasonable, so we asked Dr. Giesbrecht to test it. When he did, he discovered several things. First, the act of simply removing a headrest from a vehicle can be somewhat time consuming and at times, a little difficult for some  people to accomplish, especially when seated in the vehicle. Many people do not know how to remove the headrest from their vehicle because they have never done it before, and in most vehicles with airbag headrests, the headrest is not removable by the owner. The amount of time it takes to remove the headrest in many cases uses up that critical minute to minute and a half or more of potential escape time when that time would be better spent using another method to escape.

The second thing Dr. Giesbrecht discovered was if you do get the headrest out, it makes a relatively poor tool to break a tempered vehicle side window. There are several reasons for this; first, they are relatively lightweight (by design) and the rods on the headrest are tapered on the ends and typically come to a very blunt, rounded point (once again, by design). To break a tempered vehicle side window reliably, you have to concentrate the force in a small area low on the window and close to the front of the  window if you can. If you hit the window with both rods of the headrest, the window fails to break virtually every time due to the force being distributed across the window into an area of the glass that is made to flex and not break under pressure. You could potentially break the window with both rods if you hit it hard enough, but when sitting inside the  vehicle it is extremely difficult to generate that much force due to the limited room available to swing the headrest. If you tilt the headrest at an angle to use one rod to hit the  window, the headrest rods just kind of “skate” off the window with little effect.

Dr. Giesbrecht and his staff were able to break a side window from the exterior of a vehicle where there is more room to swing it, but it took a significant number of tries to successfully accomplish it for the reasons I have already mentioned. The conclusion at the end of the testing was that a vehicle headrest is a poor choice for a tool to break a  vehicle side window and should not be attempted when other methods are known to be more successful. Speaking specifically about breaking a window from the exterior of a  vehicle, it has been our experience that there are typically other objects available for bystanders to break the window (rocks, tools, etc.).

You may be interested to know that there is one thing that every vehicle has in it that can be used to reliably break a side window, and that is the male metal seat belt clip. With the seat belt pulled out as far as possible, and the metal clip grasped in your fist, if you strike the side window low and at the front of the window, it will break the window virtually  every time on the first or second try. It does that because the force is concentrated with a hard object in a small area of the window known to be its weakest point. Our instructions make a point of including this means of breaking a window as one of the steps to be followed in all vehicle escape situations.

Thank you for your interest in this subject and being involved enough to further the discussion on methods to help someone in dire need of assistance. We do appreciate it. 
Best regards,
Mike Thompson
Fire Protocol, Academics and Standards Expert
International Academies of Emergency Dispatch

I can clearly recall the afternoon in late 2000, when upon leaving our training room after the last day of the new Fire Council of Standards meeting, I turned to the chairman, Battalion Chief Gary Galasso, San Jose Fire Department (California, USA), and said, “These instructions are certainly novel and well-constructed … but this type of call will never happen!” I was nearly immediately proven wrong when the Karla Gutierrez case in Florida occurred a short time later, and, since no instructions were available to be provided, she drowned. These new Pre-Arrival Instruction protocols then got national television coverage as a somber but very groundbreaking result. And that’s the only time I have ever been wrong!
... Jeff Clawson, M.D.