Aug 08, 2023

Wollongong firefighters push for mandatory crash simulations in driver safety program

New South Wales firefighters are calling for a live rescue simulation to be included in a statewide program that warns younger drivers of the risks of dangerous driving.

Wollongong firefighter and schoolteacher Peter Bilea has spent 15 years educating teenagers about road safety.

He said he winched one of his own students from the driver's seat of the high-speed car wreck in 2015 — an accident that ultimately killed the driver's 15-year-old sister.

"Seeing that needless waste of life, it changes you straight away," Mr Bilea said.

"I realised for the road toll to come down and for young kids to come home, I needed to push road safety messages onto everyone."

Mr Bilea said before the incident he was "complacent" and indifferent to students not paying attention.

"I used to say to kids, 'If you don't want to listen, don't'," he said.

"It's not that we didn't take our driver's safety program seriously before, we are just much more in tune."

With the help of Mr Bilea's longtime colleague and friend Stuart James, the pair transformed their delivery of the Fire and Rescue NSW RescuEd program to make it more realistic.

"A visual presentation with crash statistics in an assembly setting is just one component of the program now," Mr James said.

"We'll have a car outside from the local metal yard and stage our own casualty scenario with one of the teachers."

The mock scenario involves crews using the heavy, hydraulic tools from their trucks to cut apart the vehicle and ultimately free its injured passenger.

Wollongong is the only station in the state to offer the rescue simulation in the RescuEd program.

"For the students it can be quite confronting," Mr James said.

"All they hear is glass crash, things breaking and snapped in front of them."

Mr James said the passenger extrication simulation had caught the attention of the students, as had personal stories about emergency rescues.

"I have a second job working in a funeral home," Mr James said.

"Basically, I can tell [students], 'Well here's ... what could happen if you don't make good decisions behind the wheel'.

"I could be the person preparing you for your funeral, and that can take their breath away a little bit."

Mr James said he unfolded a body bag as he introduced the program to Year 11 students at Warilla High School last week.

"Car accidents affect everyone," he said.

"Sure, we work around people's sensitivities, but it is important to show students how easily their lives and the lives of others can change.

"What we show and tell in our program is jaw-dropping for most of them."

Mr James said the program served as a healing mechanism for his colleagues, including Mr Bilea, who could discuss the traumas encountered on the job.

"Peter couldn't talk about that accident involving his student for a long time," Mr James said.

"Now it's how we start our program at each school.

"It's sad the brigade hasn't picked this up statewide, so we've had to implement this on a smaller scale in Illawarra schools."

The Wollongong crew has performed demonstrations for thousands of students since introduced simulations five years ago.

Warilla High School student Connor Taylor-Wilson was among the latest group of classmates to watch their teacher, Braden Harry, be pulled from the wreck of a simulated car accident.

"It was quite cool to see how the rescue process functions and works," Connor said.

"But it was nerve-wracking to think anyone could be in that situation because of a slight accident or mistake."

Corrimal High School teacher Lisa Quinn said she was deeply moved by the level of realism.

"I didn't realise the course would bring up a nerve," Mrs Quinn said.

"I found it was confronting but I think it makes you realise what can happen to the students if we don't teach them properly."