One thing about getting older is that you can reminisce about the good old days, which may or may not have been so good. In many ways, they were definitely simpler, with far fewer options from which to choose. One area of the fire service where this definitely applies is automobile extrication. Prior to hydraulic tools, cutters, and spreaders, there were merely hand tools to get the job done. Many firefighters can probably remember having a hydraulic extrication tool powered by a gasoline power unit, along with some simple pry bars and maybe a spring-loaded center punch to get people out of a wreck.
Today the number of tools that can be used is significantly higher. Each can do something different. A department that wishes to excel at automobile extrication will need a vast array of tools to perform extrication quickly, efficiently, and effectively—especially on modern vehicles. The materials used in today’s vehicles and various assembly methods provide challenges to all responders. The required tools also challenge fire departments in different ways.
Valuable Real Estate
More tools take up more space on fire trucks. They require more training. And, of course, funding is needed to purchase and maintain the various tools. Whether it is the fire chief or someone else in the organization, someone needs to evaluate these issues and balance the benefits with the challenges presented in these areas. There are many great tools and techniques that help. But, it may not always be possible to have everything, even if you really want it.
If you start by looking at the tools and the accepted procedures associated with them, you start to see that there are many options. Rescuers must complete certain tasks to operate safely and protect not only the person or persons trapped but also the rescuers. Based on the risks being faced, the potential to use special rescue tools, and the funds available to make purchases, each department must assess what it really needs and what it can really afford.
Manufacturers of extrication tools and fire service extrication experts have done a great job of identifying tools that are very good at helping firefighters remove people from vehicles (or remove the vehicle from the person, depending on their perspectives). There is now a proper tool for almost everything. Through training and experimentation, there are now best practices for which tool to use and how to use it for various extrication challenges.
Know Your Limitations
One could advocate that every fire department must work toward handling every emergency likely to occur, regardless of the potential frequency. But, departments with a low run volume, low risk for serious wrecks, or financial issues cannot afford everything. They must prioritize their needs and develop a basic cache of tools that will allow them to do the basics. Even though they may know of other departments that have the latest and greatest, it might not be possible for all to keep up. Departments need to know their limitations and do the best they can with what they have.
Budgets may be one of the most significant driving forces that determine the tools a department has. Regardless of one’s budget, there are things that can be done. While very effective, the most expensive tools may not be feasible everywhere. But, if your organization has responsibilities to handle vehicular accidents, you must make some basic preparations. You can view this as a multiyear project and acquire the essentials over time. However, extrication tools must be included in the budget, not as an afterthought.
Know Tools Inside and Out
For each tool a fire department has, there is a proper way to use it. This requires training. When considering your tool list, remember you will need to find the time to train to achieve competence before an emergency occurs. Although this seems obvious, remember the constant challenge every department faces to find the time and resources to train. Training for extrication requires classroom and hands-on lessons and practice. Besides possible embarrassment from not being able to use what is on the truck, you may even increase the chance for injury by not using the tools properly.
Though it might sound ridiculous to ask, how will you store, carry, and transport your tools? Some departments are fortunate to have special rescue vehicles, which may provide more flexibility and options. If your department does not, then you will need to get creative.
As an example, it has become standard practice to stabilize a vehicle prior to beginning extrication operations. If you are using cribbing, step chocks, rescue jacks, or some of the commercially available tools to stabilize a vehicle, they need to be on the truck that will most likely arrive on the scene first, since this is one of the first operations. If there is not enough space, you will need to rearrange the tools and equipment, putting the items most likely to be used later in the operation on a different vehicle.
For most departments, the expectation for frequent, significant extrication operations is low. One option departments should explore is mutual aid. Perhaps a program that shares responsibilities would yield the best capabilities for multiple communities. A department could have access to the latest and greatest by sharing the cost, training, and storage of extrication equipment. There are certain basics that every department needs to get started, but there are definitely specialized tools that can be shared. This takes sound interdepartment relations but should be a priority for almost every department.
There are some great resources that provide help and information on extrication. The Transportation Emergency Rescue Committee, USA (TERC), an international organization that specializes in improving extrication, has much information at www.tercus.org. The auto industries have been helpful. Ford Motor Company has donated millions of dollars in vehicles to support extrication. With these vehicles, departments have been able to practice with their tool caches on modern vehicles and experiment with different techniques. General Motors is working to provide resources to help with hybrid and electric vehicles and the unique challenges they present, including appropriate tools and procedures.
These are just a few examples of available resources. As always, you must do your homework, evaluate your needs, and spend wisely. Though extrication may not be a frequently occurring event for your department, your ability to perform is critical to a positive outcome.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.