To the Rescue: Managing, Maintaining, and Mitigating New Rescue Technology

What, exactly, does “new technology” or “new rescue technology” really mean?
Carl j. Haddon

I’ve been teaching a program called “New Vehicle Technology (NVT) Extrication” since 2009. So, when is “new” new, and exactly how much of “new technology” do I need to keep up on to stay on top of my craft?

The truth is that new technology is perpetually new. In the case of NVT extrication, I have to constantly stay on top of what the automakers are putting out. How do (or can) we maintain new technology? Finally, what happens when or if our “new technology” fails? Do we have a failsafe or “Plan B”?

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Being a salty (aka older) firefighter, I remember our first real challenge with what was then new technology. The new technology was electronic (vs. manual) apparatus pump panels. Prior to this technology, we pulled manual levers and threw gates to flow water to their respective lines. I am not going to lie: We didn’t trust those newfangled digitally controlled electronic gadgets and, quite honestly, many of us still don’t trust them. What has made a big difference for firefighters my age was being able to climb under the rig and learn what we needed to do to flow water in the event of a digital panel malfunction. We understood and appreciated that when the panel operated as designed, things were good. We also knew that there was/is very little we could do as far as maintaining these panels. The big key to the challenge was learning how to manually open and close (at least some of) the valves in the event of a malfunction.

Please know that I’m not disparaging any apparatus manufacturer’s products. We ALL know, or should know, about Murphy’s Law and when it typically comes into play. Even if you’ve never had a panel malfunction, it’s added value to have the knowledge and training to be able to overcome the challenge in the event of such an occasion, right?

Let’s take a look at some of the newest and up and coming rescue technology and how some of this may play for your department.

Probably some of the biggest advances in rescue technology would have to be attributed to the world of vehicle rescue and extrication. We’ve come a long way from George Hurst’s original race car rescue 32A Jaws of Life hydraulic rescue tools in 1972, which weighed in at 70-plus pounds each. Some of the latest and greatest rescue tool technology includes lithium ion battery-powered tools. Lithium ion batteries seem to be powering everything these days, from automobiles to big rig trucks and buses, kids’ scooters, and bicycles. As I sit here, I think about the lithium ion battery-powered 12-volt car battery jumper box that I just bought for my wife’s car. It fits in the palm of my hand! If you look at some of the product offerings from rescue tool manufacturers, you’ll find battery-operated electric over hydraulic rescue tools that can be used underwater. I’ve used many a traditional tethered (hydraulic hose) rescue tool underwater, but the thought of the freedom offered by a reliable battery-powered tool that I can take into the river for extrication or recovery sounds pretty great.

Remember when battery-operated reciprocating saws first came out? What has always been the weakest link with anything battery-operated in the American fire service? It’s the batteries. Lithium ion batteries are more powerful, can last longer, and can be a great asset to our operations. They’re still batteries, and we also know that lithium ion battery technology has its fire and thermal runaway challenges. These battery challenges also apply to everything from electric powered vehicles to cell phones and laptop computers.

So, what happens if or when one of these battery-powered tools has a battery issue? (One of the biggest challenges of early lithium ion battery-powered tools is that they gave very little, if any, warning that they were about to die.) If one of these batteries dies in the middle of a critical cut or spread on an ultra high strength steel vehicle component, that cut or spread is finished. Remember that the cutting or spreading force applied by the cutter or spreader adds to the factor of “work worrying” or hardening of the metal at the site of the cut or spread if the cut or spread is not completed. On today’s new vehicle metals, we no longer recommend going back to the same cut and taking another “bite” because of that same work worrying or work hardening of the ultra-high-strength steel. Every wreck is different, and you may or may not have the space or room to make a “fresh” cut to avoid the additional hardened metal. These are some of the things that we may need to mitigate as we try to manage the use of our new technology tools.

If something like this happens to you on scene, does your department have the resources and forward thinking for redundant backup tools? Moreover, does your apparatus have the compartment space for backup tools?

I love new innovations and the addition of new technology into today’s fire service. I, like every other red-blooded American firefighter, love new toys and, as an officer, I especially love “firefighterproof” new equipment and apparatus. If it helps to guarantee that my staff and crews come back from calls in as good as or better shape than they left for the call, it’s a win for everybody.

I also know that new technology can become old very quickly if it isn’t managed and maintained. If you’ve been in service long enough to make it out of the academy, then you also know that we need a “Plan B” for just about everything. Those “Plan Bs” are the mitigation factor between new technology, system failure, and successful rescue operations.

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.

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