Snohomish County area firefighters crowd under a bus secured atop a car as they practice multi-agency response for vehicle accidents at NW Auto Recyclers on Wednesday in Lake Stevens. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Snohomish County area firefighters crowd under a bus secured atop a car as they practice multi-agency response for vehicle accidents at NW Auto Recyclers on Wednesday in Lake Stevens. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

If vehicles crash and tumble, rescuers want to be ready

The Puyallup Extrication Team practiced with other fire departments on cars, SUVs and even buses.

LAKE STEVENS — You can’t just pick up a school bus. It takes practice.

On Wednesday forklifts built a kind of obstacle course of old buses on top of mangled cars, like sculptures of horrible crash scenes, in a gravel lot behind a Lake Stevens scrapyard. A firefighter might come across a nightmare scenario like this once a decade. But it’s the kind of thing you don’t want to roll up to and have no idea what to do.

“It could be a semi, it could be a dump truck.” said Ray Kosiba, a battalion chief of training for the Lake Stevens Fire Department. “When they flip over and they’re on top of cars, it creates a whole new element for us.”

Lake Stevens Fire paid about $8,400 to train from dawn to dusk with the Puyallup Extrication Team. Lake Stevens encouraged neighboring fire districts — Arlington, Getchell, Silvana — to train with them, to simulate the kind of multi-agency response these crashes would get.

On one side of the lot a white Izusu Rodeo had been crunched by the back end of a long Blue Bird school bus that seemed to have dropped out of the sky. A short yellow school bus had been tipped sideways onto the front seats of a navy blue Mercury Mystique. Firefighters had the task of figuring out how to get the Mystique out of there, while pretending that there were people trapped inside.

In real life they’d check for leaking fluids that could catch fire; on their radio they’d say how many people are hurt, and how serious the injuries are; then they could size up how to reach and free victims.

To hoist a bus, you’ve got to have a plan. And a backup plan. And a backup plan for the backup plan.

One of the teachers, Shawn Wagner, a lieutenant with East Pierce Fire & Rescue, scribbled the game plan on the bus in marker. Crews extended heavy-duty telescoping poles, “struts,” to make a triangle of supports on each side. They set up chains for the lifting; wood blocks to stop tires from rolling, and the chassis from shifting; and straps to keep cars from bouncing, as the pressure released. They revved the Jaws of Life to cut the frame, crawl in and rescue mannequins.

They don’t want pristine, upright cars for these rehearsals. They want to work against gravity and weakened metal, like in the field.

“You’ve got to think, logistically, how are you going to cut things without causing something else bad to happen,” Kosiba said.

Many old school buses, like these, weigh about 17,000 pounds or so. Newer ones are more fortified and can weigh twice as much — great for protecting kids, but a heftier challenge in a rescue. Often it takes about a quarter-hour to lift a bus. Some tow trucks are outfitted with actual cranes, and can do it faster. So in the morning, drivers from Dick’s Towing practiced alongside about 25 firefighters.

The scrapyard in Lake Stevens acquires a few buses each year. Often they’re abandoned backyard projects. Thick green moss carpeted the hood of the short bus. Or they’re worn out and retired by school districts, said Kris Muhlestein, 49, owner of Northwest Auto Recyclers.

In the past year, the auto recycler opened the lot to firefighters. First-responders from Everett, Mukilteo and other departments around Snohomish County have gained critical experience here.

In his line of work, Muhlestein has seen countless wrecked cars. He’s also the grandson of a fire chief from Provo, Utah.

So the fire crews use the space and the stripped vehicles for free. The cars were in line to go to the shredder anyway. And the karma might pay off, God forbid, if one day Muhlestein or someone he knows ends up in a crash, he said. It’d be nice to know you’re in good hands.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; Twitter: @snocaleb.

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