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U of M professor develops emergency dispatch protocol

vehicle-in-water protocol will be used by 911 dispatchers across the world

March 3, 2016 — 

You could say Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht’s research is a real lifesaver.

That’s because the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management professor’s vehicle-in-water protocol has recently been adopted by one of North America’s largest emergency dispatch companies, being distributed to 60 per cent of the English-speaking world as well as translated into many other languages.

“In general, emergency dispatch protocols for sinking vehicles have been either non-existent or ineffective to deal with this rapidly deteriorating situation in which a vehicle will fill with water and sink completely (if the water is deep enough),” says Giesbrecht.

Every year 350-400 people die in submersed vehicles in North America, with these deaths accounting for up to 10 per cent of all drownings. According to Giesbrecht, vehicle submersion has the highest fatality rate of any type of single vehicle accident.


Dr. Giesbrecht, aka Professor Popsicle, has devoted his academic career to improving the odds for victims of exposure to the elements.

“Most of these incidents are survivable as vehicles usually hit the water in an upright position causing, at most, non-disabling injuries; in these cases death results from either ineffective, or no, self-rescue actions by the victim(s),” Giesbrecht adds.

The main problem is that although a sinking vehicle might take three-to-four minutes to completely fill with water, it’s only possible to survive if you can open or break and window and exit within the first minute or so. After that, the water pushes against the windows and they can’t be opened.

Previous 911 protocols followed the usual advice to sit tight, relax and wait for help to arrive. However, since it is virtually impossible to get a rescue team to a site within one minute, valuable time is wasted, often with fatal results.

A few years ago, officials in the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) commissioned a “Vehicle Submersion Subcommittee” to create an evidence-based revision of the “vehicle in water” protocol and chose to adopt Giesbrecht’s protocol as it’s model.

The new protocol follows newly created, and commonly accepted, public advice regarding a vehicle in water, which includes: don’t panic, do not use your cell phone (until safely out of the vehicle), and follow four actions points (SEATBELTS off; WINDOWS open or broken; CHILDREN released from restraints; and OUT immediately). Since sinking vehicle occupants may still call 9-1-1 for assistance, the new protocol follows the principles of this advice in order to promote rapid self-exit and survival.

Giesbrecht operates the Laboratory for Exercise and Environmental Medicine where he studies human responses to exercise/work in extreme environments. He has conducted hundreds of cold water immersion studies that have provided valuable information about cold stress physiology and pre-hospital care for human hypothermia.

“We know our SEATBELTS-WINDOWS-CHILDREN-OUT protocol has already saved lives of vehicle occupants who have remembered it and implemented it themselves,” says Giesbrecht. “It is gratifying to know that over time, lives will also be saved of occupants who call 911 and get the same advice.”






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