DEARBORN, MI – Ford Motor Co. is donating dozens of new vehicles built with high-strength steel bodies and frames to be used for training emergency responders.

The increased use of high-strength steels in vehicles is credited with saving lives, but it has created unique challenges for rescue workers.

Just a decade ago, nearly any vehicle on the road could be cut easily by “Jaws of Life” tools, hydraulic-powered cutters and pullers employed by emergency personnel to free trapped motorists following a collision.

Today, metals used in auto body construction, such as boron steel, are far too strong to be cut with traditional tools, slowing down efforts by rescue workers, who must cut around sections of the vehicle reinforced with high- and ultra-high-strength steels.

Jim Bundren, a trainer for emergency equipment supplier ResQ Tek Inc. and a St. Louis firefighter, says the extra time can mean the difference between life and death.

“Slower extrication eats into the golden hour,” he says, referring to the time period in which accident victims should receive treatment for the best chance of survival.

Newer tools can cut through high-strength steels, trimming the time it takes to extract a trapped occupant from 45 minutes to just 5 minutes.

But even with the new tools constant training is essential.

At a demonstration at a fire station here, Ford safety engineers use a cutaway of the new ’12 Focus to shine a light on the compact car’s high-strength steel applications, then watch as Dearborn firefighters slice into an F-150 pickup.

Since 1990, Ford has provided more than 2,000 vehicles to various fire departments for such training.

Ford began using high-strength steel in its vehicles in the late 1990s, with the Lincoln LS the first car to employ the material.

The auto maker also is supporting PenWell Publishing, publisher of Fire Engineering Magazine, which is developing an extrication training video series that will be available to firefighters nationwide in 2011.

While the auto maker supplies vehicles, it does not provide tips for extrication, says Todd Fronckowiak, manager-design analysis and engineering for Ford.

Emergency responders “are the experts of how to get occupants out of the vehicle and treated in severe accidents,” he says. “They use the modern vehicles (we provide) so they can update their procedures and use them most effectively to provide assistance.”

Although new extrication tools recently purchased by the Dearborn Fire Dept. through a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant can cut through high-strength steels, it’s critical to know where to cut, says Bundren, noting modern vehicles can “kill you” without even moving.

“There are too many things in there that are dangerous, so you have to know where to cut,” he says. “There are 4,500 psi (310 bar) cylinders for airbags, and that pressure is going to be released if you cut through it.”

Bundren also trains first responders on how best to extricate victims from high-voltage hybrid-electric vehicles.

However, he says auto makers have done a good job clearly marking areas in HEVs that pose a danger to responders and in ensuring high-voltage lines are shut down following a collision.

As for electric vehicles such as the ’11 Nissan Leaf, Bundren says, “there is still training to do.”