New Vehicle Technology vs. New Rescue Tool Technology

Carl J. Haddon   Carl J. Haddon


The 2014 fire service trade show season is winding down, having given many of us a number of opportunities to check out what’s new and improved in the world of rescue tools.


This is also the time of year when we look forward to the release of 2015 model year vehicles. When we look for a new car or truck, in addition to other research about the vehicles, we test drive them, putting them through their paces, don’t we? Do we do the same thing with department purchases like rescue tools? I’m not talking about physically touching them at a show or with a dealer. I’m talking about really putting them through their paces and testing their limitations.

As automakers continue their quest to make new cars tougher, lighter, safer, and more fuel-efficient for the consumer, how have the changes in new vehicle construction and safety features affected how we do our job at the scene of a vehicle wreck?

There continues to be lots of talk and hype within the fire service about hybrids and concerns over electric vehicle issues. However, for the purpose of this article, my focus is on extrication challenges-the process of removing the vehicle parts and components from around a victim who is entrapped, either medically or physically. Additionally, what, if any, advances have been made in rescue tool technology to address these challenges?

Vehicle Construction

Ultra-high-strength steel (UHSS) and other metals, such as titanium and magnesium, continue to be used in ever increasing amounts in new vehicle construction. These materials are used, in part, to make today’s vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient without compromising strength. Think of today’s new cars like 200-mph race cars without the horsepower. Superspeedway cars are built to be aerodynamic and to withstand high-speed crashes. Heavy-duty chromolly roll cage components protect the driver, but the “skin” of the race car is very thin and lightweight.

Today’s passenger cars have become increasingly similar to these race vehicles in many ways. The aforementioned metals are used to make the vehicle’s passenger compartment-roll cage-very strong and able to withstand crashes at highway speeds, while the outer “skin” of the car is very lightweight and used for aerodynamics and fuel economy. Interestingly enough, not too long ago these race cars were a challenge for many rescue tools on the market, while most passenger cars posed little trouble for them. Today, the opposite is true. Most rescue tool technology has advanced to the point where race car superstructure is no longer the challenge it once was. The challenges presented to them by today’s UHSS-infused passenger vehicles is a whole other story.

Upcoming Standards

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) drive many of the new and upcoming safety and construction standards for vehicles sold in the United States. One standard that has affected the outcomes of vehicle rescues is the Roof Crush Standard 216a. This standard, paraphrased, changed passenger vehicles and light truck roofs from having to withstand 1½ times their own vehicle weight in a rollover to three times the weight of the vehicle. To meet this standard, automakers had to beef up metals and components not only in the car roofs but also in all of the supporting structures-all vertical posts, roof rails, and rocker panels. Without belaboring the subject, you can see how this standard, along with the latest side-impact standard, put a huge strain on the rescue tools we have used in the fire service for years and years. In short, these changes in vehicle construction and materials used caused the failure and ultimate retirement of many of our “tried and true” rescue tools-and rescue methods and tactics.

Today’s Rescue Tools

Fast forward to today. Most of us have experienced some of these new vehicle rescue challenges firsthand. New vehicles continue to get tougher and tougher. Have the rescue tool manufacturers risen to meet the challenge? My hands-on experience and research tell me that the answer to that question is yes. Have they all been successful? Not so much.

The problem is fairly simple to define-at least for me. If what you are trying to cut, bend, or spread is made from a material or materials that are tougher and harder than the materials used to build the tools that you are trying to cut, bend, or spread with, there’s a problem. A number of automotive manufacturing engineers that I work with have summed the situation up: “In order to be successful in conquering today’s UHSS components, a rescue tool has to employ the combination of three essential elements: speed, strength, and blade design.”

I have personally used and taught classes with the vast majority of different rescue tools on the market. Thank you to all of the tool manufacturers and automakers who stepped up and offered their products, whether you knew it or not, for us and our students to use on the toughest makes and models of vehicles in production today. A number of rescue tool manufacturers are figuring out how to produce that winning combination of speed, strength, and blade design needed to conquer the toughest of new car metals. Others are still working toward that goal. Even though we left a pile of rescue tool carcasses in our wake, tool manufacturers gained valuable information from firefighters and automakers alike.

Please note that I have purposefully left out the word “hydraulic” when referring to rescue tools. Today’s rescue tools come in many shapes and sizes and can be hydraulic, electric over hydraulic, electric, and manually operated.

2014 luxury vehicle with the A post cut
1 Shown here is a 2014 luxury vehicle with the A post cut, showing multiple layers of UHSS. Many of these new vehicles pose serious challenges to today’s rescue tools. (Photo by author.)

Laminated Glass

One of the new vehicle safety standards that we will be dealing with in the next few years is the laminated glass standard. By 2017, all passenger vehicles sold in the United States will be required to have laminated glass in all windows. This upcoming standard has also generated some new rescue tools designed to deal with laminated glass. Gone will be the trusted glass punch for vehicle side windows. We will also need to reconsider our use of hand saws and reciprocating saws on laminated glass side windows. Consider a dark tinted laminated glass side window. What if we can’t see the occupant? What if we can? Either way, we probably won’t want to puncture the glass with the pick or adz of the halligan, right? Once we make purchase, are we going to want to be jabbing a hand saw or a reciprocating saw into the window, in close proximity to our patients? Fortunately, this year we have seen a couple of new and innovative tools on the market that deal with this challenge safely and effortlessly.

Try It Yourself

Whether you’re reading this article in print or in electronic form, you may have noticed that I haven’t named a single manufacturer. Why not? The answer to that question is somewhat old school. You can’t know how any tool or product works for you simply by reading about it or researching it online. I’m trying to coax you to go out, find, and demo these new tools and products for yourselves. I’ve personally used everything that I’ve referred to in this article. Bloggers and Web sites are great, but you can’t know how new rescue tools work on new vehicles unless you physically and personally introduce one to the other. Reach out to any manufacturer’s representative or factory that has a product you or your department may be interested in. You’ll make their day; it’s what they live for! I guarantee you that one of two things will happen. One, they will gladly arrange for a demo of their tools or products in some form or fashion or send you a demo unit for you to try yourself. The other thing that will happen is nothing. Either way, you and your department will gain valuable information about the companies that you would or would not like to do business with.

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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