By Loreth Beswetherick If things ever go wrong for you on the infamous Highway 99, these are the guys you want on the other end of the 9-1-1 dispatch call. A team of Whistler firefighters came home from Coral Gables, Florida Sunday night armed not only with a placing in international competition, but some insight on new car technology and how to safely cut accident victims out of vehicles that could contain up to 13 airbags. The Whistler team earned third place in the unlimited portion of the International Auto Extrication Championships, which saw them competing against 24 fire departments from across North America from Sept. 21 to 26. Team captain Chris Nelson said the level of competition was high. "This is a major coup for us. We are extremely happy. The competition was extremely tough." The team of six — Lance Brannigan, Dan Kauffman and Doug Harwood, the three tool people, plus medic Doug Hart and alternate Rob Thorne — went to the competition cold, said Nelson. Only two had seen international competition before. Traditionally a local team would first have to win the Lower Mainland regional competition and then take honours at the Western Canadian extrication competition before earning a place at the international level. A series of circumstances this year, however, saw no regional or Western Canadian event take place. "Things just didn’t come together but we still wanted to compete." Nelson said Whistler applied to take part in the international competition based on past merits which include a Western Canadian win. He noted each of the other 24 teams all had the experience of beating out another 24 other teams to get to Florida. Nelson, who has been competing since 1993, said he saw many familiar faces on seasoned teams who had been competing together for years. "I am very impressed with our guys. They did an amazing job." The competition is comprised of two categories. The unlimited component uses heavy hydraulic tools referred to as the jaws of life. They limited category uses smaller hand tools including reciprocating saws, air chisels and light hydraulic tools. Teams have 20 minutes to get "patients" out of smashed in vehicles. The goal, said Nelson, is to make the biggest opening possible to do no further harm to the individual who has already sustained injuries or been through a traumatic situation. We try to get them out and to medical care within one hour — the golden hour." Points from the two categories are combined to determine overall winners who this year were: Brighton, New York; Warren Township, Indianapolis and Mississauga, Ontario. The event also serves as a learning symposium. One day was devoted to new airbag technology and the dangers of setting off undeployed bags. "It can be very dangerous for a rescuer to start cutting people out of a car where one could potentially go off. There have been cases where that has happened," said Nelson. In the right application, airbags can be lifesavers but, if we come in after a head-on, for example, where only the front ones went off, it becomes very dangerous. We came away with a greater knowledge and understanding of how to deal with those undeployed airbags." The Whistler team’s participation was funded mostly by cash raised at the Other Firefighters’ Ball.