Fire department trains for semi crashes ahead of construction

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Nico Savidge
Wednesday, October 16, 2013

JANESVILLE—It hadn't been a great morning for the white Mercury wedged beneath the back of a semitrailer at a local gravel pit Wednesday.

A metal bar crushed the car's roof onto its cushy red interior, and two of its detached doors lay a few feet away.

Nor was the day shaping up well for the black Monte Carlo also flattened under the trailer. “FIRE DEPT GOMER” was scrawled in yellow spray paint on its hood.

These decades-old American machines were dying a noble death, though, being intentionally crushed and ripped apart to train Janesville firefighters for the grisly type of crashes authorities fear could become more common during a massive widening project on Interstate 90/39.

Gary Wedel of Dewey's Towing and Recovery described the crashes as, “Truck stops, car goes underneath—or car stops, truck goes over the top.”

With Interstate construction expected to cause backups and sudden changes in traffic speeds, the potential rises for so-called “under ride” accidents, Wedel said.

“It's going to be a tight lane, and all it takes is one person drifting off and you'll have a major accident,” Wedel said.

Janesville fire officials want to make sure their first responders are ready for the crashes, so they joined with Dewey's to put on the training.

Dewey's supplied the doomed cars.

The training is important because in under ride crashes, cars often wind up pinned beneath trucks like the Mercury was, making it hard for firefighters or paramedics to help anyone inside.

Those trucks can weigh 80,000 pounds fully loaded, Wedel said.

To get to victims in those crashes, first responders rely on companies such as Beloit-based Dewey's to lift the semitrailer up using a crane-like device called a rotator.

From there, firefighters can pull the car out so they can get to passengers with hydraulic jaws they used to tear up cars on Wednesday.

It's a labor-intensive process, and on a road such as Interstate 90/39, every minute means more cars getting backed up and the potential for more accidents, Lt. Ron Bomkamp said.

Crews need to be trained on what to do in these crashes and be able to do it quickly, Bomkamp said.

“The sooner we can get off the Interstate, the less chance of another accident happening upstream from that,” he said.

Janesville firefighters have done plenty of training for how to extricate people from cars, but hadn't done one for these accidents in particular, Bomkamp said.

Dewey's works on both sides of the state line, helping authorities with wrecks from Rockford, Ill., to Madison.

Training such as the one this week gives firefighters more confidence in the crews they work with, Bomkamp said, and helps make sure they know what to do in a real under ride crash.

“It's going to make it so much easier when we do have an accident,” he said.

Last updated: 3:09 pm Wednesday, October 16, 2013

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