With a devilish grin, the operator of the front-end loader shifts gears and plows into the right side of a sparkling red Ford F350. At the same moment, another loader meets the opposite side of the truck, making metal squeal and shards of glass spray, and completes a grotesquely symmetrical visual image.

No, this isn't a scene from a monster truck rally. It's just prep work for the Regional Extrication Team Challenge, a rescue training session and competition for firefighters held last month at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, MI.

The F350, "sculpted" and positioned to resemble a double-side-impact crash, was among 50 model year 1998-'00 vehicles donated by Ford Motor Co. for the rescue simulation. In full gear and with the mercury pushingpast 901/2F (321/2C), 12 teams from 11 Michigan fire departments used saws, rams, cutters and "jaws of life" to rescue dummies from simulated wrecks.

MAC president Dave Sanders says the program is important because as vehicle models evolve, firefighters need to keep up with structural changes. "If you're too close to an air bag when it comes out at 250 miles an hour, it can shatter your arm," he says.

Ford spokesperson Dennis Lark agrees: "The newer the vehicle you can train on, the better off you are."