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How to Survive Your Vehicle Submerged in Water: No Time to Waste Calling 9-1-1; Get Window Open

Fri July 26 2013 9:54 am
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Vehicle submersion safety tips from Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht (vehicle escape expert) and the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.

SURVIVAL TIPS for surviving a vehicle submerged in water …

The University of Manitoba’s Gordon Geisbrecht trains law enforcement officers and others on underwater-vehicle escape. A person has about a minute or less to get out alive. Here are Geisbrecht’s five rules of survival with some added localized information —- and one caveat.

Rule 1. Don’t Call 911 while you are trapped in the car because you can’t waste time. The situation is so urgent that you need to take immediate action to escape.

Rule 2. Unbuckle your seat belt.

Rule 3. Don’t open the door! Roll down the windows instead — IMMEDIATELY — before the water causes the electric windows to fail. Opening the door is very difficult against the water pressure and it also allows so much water into the vehicle that it will speed up the sinking process. It also makes it difficult or impossible to escape the inrush of water.

[You’ll have about 30 to 60 seconds until the water rises to the bottom of the passenger windows. Geisbrecht calls this the floating period. After “The Floating Period”, the water pressure will force the window against the doorframe, making it essentially impossible to roll down the window — even with a manually operated window. The vehicle will also probably sink with the engine or front first.

Caveat to Rule 3: Break the window if it won’t roll down. Since most modern vehicles have electronically-controlled windows, the electric circuits will probably short out and fail before you have a chance to roll them down. In that case, you’ll need a tool to break the window open. Keep in mind that you need to break the window while you can still swing your arm in an air pocket. If you have to plow through the water with the tool, you probably won’t be able generate enough force to break the window. Even rescuers divers may have trouble breaking the window from the outside after you are inside your submerged car drowning.

Two of the most popular personal rescue tools are the LifeHammer ($14.95), which has a hardened-steel point to help crack open the window, and the ResQMe keychain ($9.95), which uses a spring-loaded mechanism to shatter glass. The tools need to be fixed somewhere in the vehicle, because a crash or a rollover could send the tool flying to a place where you can’t reach it, or can’t find it.

Rule 4. Children first. Everybody should go out their own window if possible, but children are going to have a harder time fighting through the inrush of water. You may have to push the children out of the window opening. Geisbrecht suggests starting with the oldest children and taking the youngest out in your arms.

Rule 5. Get out through the window opening. Swim through the broken window as fast as possible.

What if you can’t open or break the window?
If you’ve failed to get that window rolled down or broken, you’ll still have a slight chance of escape by rising your face and airway to the ceiling of the vehicle, taking a deep breath, and then holding your breath until the water pressure equalizes outside and inside the vehicle. Once water fills the car, the pressure will be equalized and you will be able to open the door. The thought of coordinating finding an air pocket at the ceiling as the car is filling with water, holding your breath while being uncertain about when when the water pressure will equalize, and then reaching the door certainly seems like a terrifying alternative to opening the window and escaping right away.

If you practice using the personal rescue tools to break windows on a junk car on dry land, wear work gloves because the glass can cut your hands. You may even want to practice releasing a car seat and throwing it out the window (empty of course).

Dr. Gordon Geisbrecht is Associate Dean and a faculty member in the department of Kinesiology and Recreation Management at the University of Manitoba, Canada.

Discovery Channel MythBusters reveal a dangerous test by waiting until the water pressure equalizes to attempt to open the door, but the door can’t be opened until well after the air pocket at the ceiling of the car is gone. Fortunately, a scuba diver with air tanks and an extra mouthpiece is in the back seat.

DIVE RESCUE OPERATIONS for a submerged car in a pond: Henry E. Laseke was killed in Arlington Heights when he sank just seconds before first responders arrived. He was seen on his cell phone just before his SUV sank.

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