Incompatibility Of Hoses And Couplers

At last count, I tallied at least four different rescue tool hydraulic hose connectors, and two different types of hydraulic fluids used in today’s rescue tools. None of the aforementioned has interconnectability (or what the industry calls interoperability) with the others. This makes as much sense as arriving on scene as a second due or mutual aid engine and discovering that our hose brass is incompatible with the fire department connections on the building or with that of the other engine companies at a working fire.

The first (and continuing) compatibility problem between rescue tools is that of hydraulic fluid and differing pressures. Phosphate ester is used in most 5,000-psi tool sets, and mineral oil is used for most 10,500-psi sets. The two fluids are incompatible, making these different tool sets incompatible. Don’t make the mistake of mixing fluids or putting the wrong fluid in a set of tools. It will lead to a costly flush and rebuild.

This has been an issue since the original rescue tools hit the market in the 1970s, and it is an issue that remains unresolved today. Phosphate ester is very corrosive to paint and highly irritating to the skin, yet it is a highly effective specialized hydraulic fluid. Common mineral oil has a multitude of uses as a hydraulic fluid, is not toxic or corrosive and is readily available in most areas. Phosphate ester retails at roughly $130 per gallon, while mineral oil retails at about $25 per gallon.

Technically, 5,000-psi tools can operate on mineral oil. The question is: Why don’t they? The answer given by some manufacturers is so that end users (fire departments) can differentiate between low pressure (5,000-psi) and high pressure (10,500-psi) systems. In the early 1970s the original hydraulic rescue tools were only available at 5,000 psi, running phosphate ester. 

So logically, with the more powerful 10,500-psi tools available today from most manufacturers and able to run on mineral oil, why would anyone want to purchase 5,000-psi tools that require phosphate ester? 

The answer is not cost. Believe it or not, there is virtually no difference in production costs between making low pressure and high pressure tools. Most reputable manufacturers and dealers don’t charge more for 10,500-psi systems. The answer is quite simple and well known: most fire departments, especially larger departments, don’t like change. They mistakenly believe that in addition to having to retrain field personnel, changing systems would require changing their in-house service and repair facilities beyond carrying different seals and fluid. 

The biggest losers when rescue tool hose connectors are incompatible with each other are our patients. It would be no different if our fire hose brass was incompatible.

In September 2008, a Los Angeles commuter train with 225 souls aboard collided head-on (at speed) with a freight train locomotive, killing 25 and seriously injuring more than 100 others. 

Upon commencing rescue operations, firefighters discovered that the commuter train was built with some of the same “exotic” metals that are found in today’s new five-star crash rated automobiles and trucks. Their “new” hydraulic rescue tools experienced general, as well as catastrophic, failures.

Broken Cutting Tools

The Los Angeles Times reported: “There had been moments of heartbreaking reality… when rescue workers trying to tunnel their way through the wreckage, encountered industrial-strength metal that broke their cutting tools; that’s when firefighters were forced to face the fact that for some trapped inside, there was no hope.”

Hydraulic hoses and connectors of any style or type, including the popular single line couplers on the market today, don’t cut people out of planes, trains and automobiles. Firefighters do – with the right rescue tools.

In the case of the tragic incident in Los Angeles, a neighboring department providing mutual aid to the incident had stronger and more powerful rescue tools available, but they did not have hose connectors that were compatible with the hoses already deployed at the wreck. Obviously, this meant that the department providing mutual aid would have had to start from scratch to deploy their own power unit and stretch all of their own hydraulic hose, instead of simply being able to connect their tools into the pre-existing hose and pump or power supply.

Unfortunately, as we all know, the additional time spent on scene can and often does turn a rescue operation into a recovery operation.

As last year progressed we saw other major rescue incidents involving commuter train wrecks (such as in Washington D.C.) where similar challenges were present.

Manufacturers develop products that they believe to be superior, such as a better hose or a better connector. Most of the companies that have developed single line couplers claim faster changing of tools and/or hot swapping under pressure. 

These can certainly be timesavers – until the lack of interoperability comes into play.

I understand brand loyalty to a certain company. Departments may be partial to a particular manufacturer’s products, but we should be able to “plug in” whatever tools we need to do the job and save lives.

Solving The Problem

We should ask who is really in charge of solving this problem. Is it the manufacturers, the National Fire Protection Association or perhaps those doing the end user purchasing for a department? In today’s litigious society, the purchasing agents or the tool committees should look outside of their own box to see what is going on around them.

Firefighters need to get involved in appropriate ways and do what is right for their departments, for the people of their service areas and for those who might need assistance on a mutual aid basis. This may be simply researching the types of tools, hoses and connectors that are being used by surrounding departments. 

This is not a new problem. Incompatible couplers have been around for a few years now.

I was (accidently) part of a conversation between rescue tool industry players about this very matter a couple of years ago at the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis. Big promises of compatibility and interchangeability were made, but that hasn’t happened. So now what? Will the NFPA get involved to address these interoperability issues? Or before something changes, will more victims and/or more firefighters have to be injured trying to push their rescue tools beyond their limitations because their backup or mutual aid company’s tools are not compatible with their own? 

Editor’s Note: Carl Haddon is the national training director for the 5 Star Training Academy sponsored by Volvo North America and Champion Rescue Tools and serves as a deputy fire chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork Fire Department in Idaho. He is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS service in southern California and has served since the early 1980s as a fire/safety director for numerous racing organizations, including Penske Motorsports, NASCAR, USAC and Mickey Thompson Racing. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and teaches auto extrication classes across the country.

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