Equipment, Haddon, Rescue Company

Catastrophic Rescue Tool Failures: Facts vs. Fiction

Issue 6 and Volume 22.

Carl J. Haddon   Carl J. Haddon

Fact: The numbers of catastrophic rescue tool failures are on the rise.

Fiction: The reasoning for this upswing in catastrophic rescue tool failures is (in part) because of the use of “Chinese/Russian steel” in the rescue tool manufacturing process. No joke – this was one of the reasons recently suggested for the reason behind an upswing in rescue tool failures.

Very recently I was contacted by a member of a “training company” that is very prolific and visible on social media. It seems this company has recently had “six catastrophic rescue tool failures with brand new hydraulic rescue cutters.” These failures apparently happened during routine extrication training programs, and nobody seemed to have any real idea what might have caused said failures. After reviewing much of what was written and offered regarding possible causes for these failures, I thought it likely time to separate fact from fiction regarding this issue. It is important to note that what I am about to offer is in no way brand-specific and is in no way intended to single out specific rescue tool manufacturers. The aforementioned tool failures likely did not happen because of anyone’s use of Chinese or Russian steel in the manufacturing process.

New Vehicle Technology

Fact: In controlled tests designed to intentionally break rescue cutter blades, we have found that resultant pieces fly through chronograph at an average of 2,700 feet per second. That is equal to the muzzle velocity of a popular caliber of high-powered hunting rifles.

Fiction: Neither your turnouts nor your bright green safety vests are going to protect you from a piece of broken rescue tool blade traveling toward you at 2,700 feet per second.

The issue of catastrophic rescue tool failures is not a new one. Tool failures have been on the rise since the advent of new vehicle technology (NVT) manufacturing. High-strength and ultra-high-strength steels have been in use since the early 2000s. Originally, these materials and the new vehicle manufacturing processes associated with them were found only in higher end luxury vehicles such as those built by Volvo and Mercedes Benz. Fast forward to 2017, and we now see that this technology has found its way throughout the automotive industry and is now commonplace from luxury to economy vehicles. All auto manufacturers have to meet the ever-changing safety standards to remain competitive here in the United States. Ah, but does the rescue tool manufacturing technology keep pace with the automakers’ technology?

The last time I publicly answered that question in print, I had some rescue tool manufacturers looking to have me keel hauled (you can Google it).

Training and NVT

Fact: We can’t understand how our rescue tools will stand up to the tough (not softball) new vehicle materials because most of us typically can’t get our hands on these tough new cars to train on to see just how well or not well our rescue tools will do.

Fiction: All rescue tools perform the same on new vehicles as they do on old vehicles.

Vehicles are not made the same way they used to be. Many of today’s new rescue tools are made the same (or similarly) as their predecessors. New valves and bigger internal orifices allow more fluid and offer increased working pressures in some cases, but a hydraulic ram is still a hydraulic ram. Lithium ion battery power packs (and cool new LED-lighted handles) may replace hoses and external pump units, but cutters still cut and spreaders still spread. It is my belief and experience that the manufacturers with the leg up on the competition are the ones with improved blade designs.

Ultra-High-Strength Steel

Fact: In 2007, a respected extrication guru stated that “the 2007 Volvo XC90 was made of ultra-high-strength steel materials that were so tough, it was doubtful any rescue tool (of the day) could conquer the materials found in that vehicle.”

Fact: The model year 2017/2018 Volvo XC90 has 10 times the amount of ultra-high-strength steel as the 2007 version did.

Fiction: Old-school methods and tactics (and old-school methods and tactics with keyboard warrior lipstick on them) will allow rescuers to conquer these new vehicles.

Most of what we all originally learned about vehicle construction and makeup has changed. Most unfortunately, the vast majority of vehicle extrication programs have not changed to keep up with automotive advances. We need to learn and understand how the metals are designed and made so that we can understand how they might react when we attempt to cut or spread them after they’ve been involved in a wreck. We need to learn and understand how our rescue tools work beyond that of what the salesperson, dealer, or rep tells us about how they’ll work. Once we understand these two important elements, we’ll be able to clearly see how everything from how we “pop a door” to why we shouldn’t “crack the egg” with new vehicles has changed. Most importantly, with all of the changes and challenges presented by NVT, rescuer safety concerns have been taken to levels never seen before. Safety systems, multiple stage air bags, and new restraint systems are all great things to have as the new vehicle consumer; however, they create a whole new bag of “lookouts” for us in the field.

Changing Techniques

Fact: Using old school extrication techniques on NVT vehicles can actually make our jobs more difficult and hinder our ability to effect a timely patient rescue. In many cases, these same techniques used on NVT can and have resulted in serious patient and rescuer injuries, putting the department in a huge position of liability.

Fiction: Fire departments don’t lose lawsuits.

Catastrophic rescue tool failures are a serious concern for everyone, and the reasons for them are most often a lack of knowledge and updated training.

Here’s the answer in a nutshell: If what you are trying to cut, bend, spread, or push is made of materials that are harder than those found in the tools you’re using to cut, bend, spread, or push, you have a recipe for disaster.

Most of the ultra-high-strength steels found in today’s tough new vehicles will need to be fractured rather than cut because of the hardness of the metal. For rescue tools to be successful on this material (our metallurgists and automotive engineer friends tell us), our tools need to have a combination of speed, high compressive force, and good blade design to be successful. If any of these elements are missing, the odds of failure increase dramatically.

Remember, when we turn on the juice to our cutter, we introduce somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 pounds of force (energy) to what we are trying to cut. That same energy is stored and is typically released in one of three ways:

  1. We release the energy with the completion of the cut.
  2. We don’t complete the cut but release the energy when we let off of the throttle of the tool.
  3. The energy is released when the tool catastrophically fails, and the blade comes apart violently. I do not recommend option number 3.

Know your tools, know your metals and vehicle construction, and update your methods and tactics with a reputable NVT extrication training program. Your patients’ lives, your crew’s lives, and your life may well depend on it.

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.