Fire response not indicative of safety team’s merit

IndyCar commentary — By on June 6, 2010 7:54 pm
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(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)

During Saturday night’s running of the Firestone 550k at Texas Motor Speedway, the usually brilliant and unflappable Holmatro Safety Team, which follows the IZOD IndyCar Series to each event during the season, was involved in one of the scariest scenes in recent memory when the #78 Team Stargate Worlds HVM Racing Dallara/Honda, driven by Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Simona de Silvestro, crashed in the turn 2 wall on her 97th lap. Though TV replays were not available, it appears that Simona was fighting a loose race car and finally lost control, crashing into the outside wall and destroying the right side of her car in the process. Similar to an earlier accident by fellow rookie Takuma Sato, the momentum of de Silvestro’s car carried her all the way from the point of impact in turn 2 almost to the entrance to pit road in turn 4. It was here that the debacle started.

While it is quite common for a brief oil fire to appear during a crash in an IndyCar event, such a fire generally burns itself out within a matter of seconds and presents no further hazard to the driver. For whatever reason, though, the oil fire on de Silvestro’s car burned long enough to ignite the bodywork and paint, causing a much more serious issue. Once the race car finally came to a halt, it took the Holmatro Safety Team eight seconds to reach the car and a completely unacceptable 32 more seconds to remove Simona from the cockpit. I don’t know what the internal goal is for the team to have a driver removed from the cockpit of a burning car, but I have to imagine that 40 seconds far exceeds whatever goal they have set.

After watching the video replay of the incident several times, it strikes me that a handful of factors played into the farce that will be seen, unfortunately, time and time again. The most appalling aspect of the whole incident is the lack of urgency that seems to pervade the four gentleman in Safety 2, the first truck that arrived on the scene. Initially, all four men turn their attention to the fire hose mounted on the front of the truck. Finally, one man gives up on the hose and goes to the car to check on Simona while the remaining three continue to work with the seemingly non-functioning hose. Not until 20 seconds after arriving on scene — yes, 20 seconds — does one of the men finally try to suppress the fire using a traditional fire extinguisher.

This is the most egregious aspect of the whole incident. While this fire burned, three of the four men responsible for ensuring that Simona de Silvestro was safe were fiddling around with a hose that was apparently malfunctioning instead of going to plan B and using the back-up extinguisher.  Twenty seconds is simply not acceptable, and I have no doubts that those in charge of the Holmatro Safety Team will completely agree. (For a more complete analysis of the response of the Holmatro Safety Team, check out this fantastic nearly second-by-second analysis from 16thandGeorgetown.com.)

The other frightening aspect of the incident was the struggle to get Simona out of the cockpit while the fire was burning. Part of this I must unfortunately lay at the feet of the driver. The first rule of any emergency situation is not to panic. Once her car finally came to a stop on the apron of the track, Simona realized the fire was not going to burn out quickly and began to panic when what she needed to do was stay calm. (Yes, I know — easy for me to say as I sit on the comfort of my couch at home.) The cockpit of the modern IZOD IndyCar is designed to fit the driver as snugly as possible, ensuring maximum safety when things go wrong. The cars are designed to keep the drivers safely inside the cockpit, not allowing them to be easily removed. Upon entering the vehicle, once the driver is seated and belted in, the molded headrest is wedged into place, securing the driver’s head and reducing lateral movement. With this headrest in place, the cockpit opening is reduced by probably eight inches. When Simona panicked and furiously attempted to get out of the car, the safety worker was unable to remove the collar, and it was therefore much more difficult to get her out of the cockpit. Keep in mind that just due to her anatomy, Simona is more difficult to get out of the car than most other drivers, particularly when the collar is in place. No, she is not particularly tall but she is wider than most of her male counterparts. That’s not a dig on Simona in any way or a statement of her fitness — that’s just a simple fact based on her female anatomy. In the video, it is very obvious that Simona was not able to get out of the cockpit without twisting and turning, which then likely caused issues with her knees clearing the dashboard. Had Simona remained a bit more calm and allowed the safety worker to remove the cockpit collar, she would have been able to remove herself from the cockpit more easily and probably would have avoided the burn on her right hand, which she received when she placed her hand on the burning sidepod in an attempt to extricate herself from the car. It is important to note that at no time was there visible fire inside the cockpit or directly engulfing Simona (though given the response of the first safety team on scene, I shudder to imagine such a scenario).

The bottom line is that, even though the response to this particular incident was abhorrent and completely unacceptable, this breakdown is an exception and not the norm when it comes to the response of the Holmatro Safety Team.  In countless other crashes and on-track situations, the Team has acted exactly according to protocol and performed flawlessly.  In this case, they completely dropped the ball.  I cannot agree with the scores of other people raging on the internet today calling for the heads of all the people involved, but I do agree that an in-depth evaluation of the situation must be conducted.  Like all top-notch organizations that hold themselves to the highest possible standards, the Holmatro Safety Team will evaluate the situation and the response from every possible angle and take steps to ensure that such a breakdown does not occur again.  Whether the failure was in procedure or execution (or likely some combination of both), the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Safety Team will address the issues presented from this abomination and work to further refine their response for future situation.  Any one of the 26 drivers in the starting line-up yesterday will tell you, even this morning, that they completely and fully trust the men and women of the Holmatro Safety Team with their lives and that any talk of scrapping the team from top to bottom is absurd.

When push comes to shove, every person in the IZOD IndyCar paddock has a job that concerns the safety of the drivers and all participants.  Whether a person is in charge of race control to ensure drivers are driving safely, a crew member tasked with ensuring that the wheel is securely attached during a pit stop, a pit technician ensuring that safety procedures are met in pit lane, or is a member of the Holmatro Safety Team charged with safely and expeditiously extricating a driver from a wrecked vehicle on track, each man and woman has a job to do that ensures the safety of all involved.  Unfortunately, these are all jobs carried out by human beings, and with that comes the possibility of human error.  When procedures break down, we pray that the consequences are minimal and that all survive unscathed, allowing everyone to face the next day and evaluate what went wrong.  In this case, a major bullet was dodged, but that isn’t to say that anyone is happy with the response.  Now, 17 hours after the incident, there are likely a number of officials from the IZOD IndyCar Series already hours into a detailed analysis to understand what went wrong and how to ensure it doesn’t happen again.  That’s all we can ask, isn’t it?  For many years, the Holmatro Safety Team (formerly known as the Delphi Safety Team) has been known as the best in the business, and even though this incident is certainly a sad blemish on their record, let us not forget the countless other times when their swift and precise response has kept drivers from danger.

As a final note, those people that are making this out to be another IndyCar vs. CART/ChampCar thing make me ill.  The Holmatro Safety Team has had an impeccable record to this point, and while this one incident is certainly unacceptable, it should in no way be considered indicative of how they perform their jobs day in and day out.  I admit that I didn’t see every single incident that the former Simple Green Safety Team responded to in CART, but I would be shocked if any member of that team told anyone that they acted in the perfect manner every time they responded to a crash.  Sure, a 100% perfect response is the goal that every team must shoot for, but the fact is that it doesn’t always happen.  The important aspect is that, when that small percentage of mistakes occurs, the team must look critically upon themselves to understand the hows and whys of what made the response imperfect.  To say that IndyCar’s professional medical team is second-rate and that response from the former CART team would have been ideal is absolutely nothing beyond speculation and conjecture.  Had this exact crash and response happened during a NASCAR race, all open-wheel fans would have taken up arms to ensure the world knew that IndyCar’s medical team would never have allowed such a travesty to take place.  Mistakes happen.  This is likely not the first time (though it has certainly brought about more ire than any previous incident I can recall).  And, to be honest, it probably won’t be the very last recovery that is flubbed.  All I can ask — all anyone can ask — is that these men and women give 100% effort, both while at the track and away from the track in preparation and simulation, to ensure that future incidents in the IZOD IndyCar Series are responded to properly and that the safety of the drivers and participants is maximized as much as possible.

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