They are eyewitnesses to the auto industry's greatest triumphs — those miraculous moments when a vehicle design preserves life in the face of certain, horrible death.

Their catch-all designation is “emergency responder.” And when violent collisions leave motorists trapped, they are tasked with shredding the vehicles so painstakingly shaped by automotive engineers.

Extrication, they call it.

Depending on the jurisdiction, they may be paramedics. They may be police officers. Most often they are firefighters.

Suffice to say only crash victims and their families have greater appreciation for occupant safety systems. But there can be too much of a good thing.

Rescue professionals say they're handcuffed by the increasing number of airbags and their requisite inflators and control modules.

“Don't get me wrong,” says Mark Uttley, a fire department captain in Windsor, Ont., Canada, and a member of the International Assn. of Fire Chiefs' Transportation Emergency Rescue Committee (TERC). “We're taking more people out, and they are in much better shape.”

But, he warns, accidentally cutting an incendiary component of an occupant restraint system, such as an airbag inflator, could have tragic consequences.

So why not simply avoid them?

“Every vehicle is different,” Uttley says, adding that rescue professionals need design knowledge.

“We have tried, with various degrees of success, to obtain such information,” says TERC Education Chairman Dave Dalrymple, a fire department captain in Clinton, N.J.

Industry-wide, auto makers have shared design data on an ad hoc basis. But when model changes or recalls prompt design evolution, information gaps occur.

TERC's crusade has exposed a knowledge deficit in the industry. Engineers are flummoxed when rescue workers outline scenarios in which inflators are breached by cutting tools.

“Some went, ‘Gee. We never thought of that,’” Uttley says.

Consider TERC's claim that undeployed airbags pose a hazard to rescuers and crash victims.

Says a supplier: “If the engine is off — and if I'm not mistaken, all firefighters are instructed to turn the engine off at a crash scene — there's no way those sensors are going to send a signal to the bag to fire.”

But even if the vehicle's battery has been disconnected, an undeployed bag still can inflate and cause injury, TERC maintains.

Such an incident happened eight years ago in Dayton, OH. Captured by a local TV news crew covering a rescue, the resulting videotape is to firefighters what the Zapruder film is to conspiracy theorists.

Two firefighters were trying to free a victim who was trapped in the rear seat of a mangled car, Uttley says.

“They had already taken the roof off. They take the (hydraulic) spreaders and they rest them on the center transmission hump. One firefighter is trying to lift up the driver's seat. In doing that, he crunched down on the control module, created a short circuit, caused the airbags to deploy and launched these two guys out of the car.”

The tape, now available on the Internet as part of an instructional video, www.timeemergency.com/fetn.html#vehicle has been seen at the highest levels.

“Oh my God, that was horrible,” says Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (NHTSA) and a longtime practitioner of trauma medicine.

Extrication safety is “on the radar screen at the agency,” Runge tells Ward's, adding advances in trauma medicine make timely patient transport more imperative than ever.

“There were very few (trauma centers) in the early '80s. Now there's a whole generation of doctors who've been trained in trauma centers and understand exactly how to do it.”

Asked if concern expressed by rescue professionals is legitimate, he says: “You bet it is.”

If only there were hard data to support this view.

The Society of Automotive Engineers' airbag identification task force launched a study in 2001. Findings are expected soon, but preliminary results are inconclusive: the Dayton incident is its only documented case of accidental airbag deployment during extrication.

The Air Bag Institute, a non-profit rescue training center, cites one other — a fatality in Arizona seven years ago — but admits record-keeping “has been weak.”

More surprising, an SAE insider tells Ward's, is that the survey reveals no clear direction about how design details should be shared.

Window stickers, such as those already displayed on Volvo windshields, were mentioned.

Volvo, which conducts tests to ensure its door handles can be manipulated by a firefighter wearing gloves, affixes a graphic near the A-pillars of its vehicles. The diagram confirms the presence of side-impact airbags, but not the precise locations of system components.

(Runge seems cool to the idea of mandating such indicators. “It's one more thing to ask the industry to do,” he tells Ward's.)

Pete Methner, TERC member and a firefighter in Niagara Falls, Ont., says the stickers are a “step in the right direction.” But, he adds, they pale in comparison to one digital solution.

Airbag Data.com offers software that serves as a repository of basic restraint system information. It saves time by accessing and displaying on hand-held personal digital assistants the locations of restraint system components for every vehicle on the road.

“You need something in front of you that's just crystal-clear and drills you down to the thing that you need as soon as possible,” says its developer, Greg Bryant.

Remarkably, the SAE task force survey shows no preference for such a solution. While “big city” fire departments seem interested, rural firefighters — some of whom are volunteers — are intimidated by the technology, the insider claims.

Bunk, says Bryant. If you have a thumb, you can use a hand-held.

But he admits his current product, which sells for $24.95 at www.airbagdata.com, is primitive.

“At this point we're very much not trying to do anything but make it exist.”

Bryant claims no problems obtaining information, dispelling the notion that proprietary concerns might be a barrier to more widespread use.

But capital is, and he imagines a government-industry consortium as a possible solution. Would it cost the players?

“Not if they all own a piece of it,” he says.

Upgrading the current product for widespread use would take about a year, Bryant says. And then there are issues such as recalls and mid-year design changes — both of which might affect component location.

“With a staff of two or three,” he says, “I think this thing can be self-sustaining very quickly.”

Meanwhile, rescue professionals are resorting to shockingly low-tech methods of determining restraint system layout. If there is uncertainty, Uttley instructs his charges to consult the vehicle's manual — if it can be found.

Elgin Browning, TERC secretary and fire department captain in Orange, TX, recommends a visual check of the B-pillar. If it appears unusually thick, “you know you've got a problem.”

Says Browning: “We always carry big Craftsman screwdrivers now, and we reach in there and yank that trim off and figure out what safety system it's got.”

(Note to those readers involved in material selection for structural components: “If y'all decide to put that boron steel in the A-post, that's fine,” Browning says. “Just kind of, maybe, let us know. There's only about 1% of rescue tools that are available that are able to cut that.”)