Fortunately or unfortunately, most of us don’t replace our rescue tools as often as we do other pieces of equipment and apparatus.
As recently as last Fall, I taught a “New Vehicle Extrication” class for a well-funded, nicely outfitted group of fire departments in the Midwest. Much to my surprise, more than one of the trucks and engines brought to the program that weekend had (in service) 1970s vintage hydraulic rescue tools onboard. Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with those heavy, first generation tools, but I knew that they would be no match for the 2018 model year luxury hybrid SUVs that we would be working on.
HOW DO I KNOW?
One of the fire chiefs in attendance pulled me aside that weekend and asked me, “What are the best new rescue tools out there, and how do we know?” I’m blessed to be able to teach with the best of the best rescue tools and have the latest releases of TOUGH new vehicles to work and teach with. That said, I never suggest one brand or type of rescue tool. When asked, “What is the best brand of rescue tools out there?” my answer is typically, “The set that you have in your truck when you arrive on scene.” You see, we may wish, and we may want, but the fact of the matter is that we need to make sure we know how to use our existing rescue tools to their absolute limits while keeping patients and crews safe. Don’t lose sight of the fact that rescue tools don’t cut, spread, push, or make space by themselves. The BEST rescue tool is a well-trained and educated group of firefighters who are constantly honing their craft.
Back to the most important part of the chief’s question, “How do I know?” That is the real question. There are some obvious answers and some not so obvious ones. This is the part of the article where rescue tool manufacturers either love me or hate me.
Obvious follow-up questions to the chief’s question include: What do you like and not like about your current tools? What type of unique challenges does your response area contain that could influence such decisions as battery-powered vs. tethered (hydraulic hose and pump) type tools? For example, here in my area in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho, I have a major highway that runs the length of the fire district. This highway is flanked on one side by the Salmon River. We have a lot of “over-the-side” rescue calls where tethered tools are not as convenient as battery-powered tools would be. On the flip side of that same coin, I can and have used tethered tools in the water, where I wouldn’t advise trying to use some battery-powered tools. We all know our own districts and response areas, but sometimes we are so familiar that we forget to see the forest through the trees. Take another look; it may surprise you.
DECIDING ON THE TOOLS
Some departments looking for new rescue tools delegate the informational gathering part of the buying process to a “tool committee.” Other departments leave this process to the chief and perhaps the training officer. Regardless of how this is handled, information is gathered on various pieces of equipment, including type, brand, price, and size. You might be surprised at how many departments choose rescue tools based primarily on how they fit in apparatus compartments. Departments also use the tried-and-true resource of asking other trusted departments about their tools and experiences with them. In my opinion, this is still a great way to gather information as long as you have an understanding of where and how the other departments use their tools relative to your department. Another department can “LOVE” their rescue tools, but if they only use them twice a year…. Tool, power unit, hose, connectors, and battery compatibility with neighboring or mutual-aid departments is also something that is often, or at least should be, considered.
The next step in the process, and very often the “scale tipper” toward one set of tools or another, is the tool demonstration or “demo.” This is where things get very interesting. When you choose tools to demo, someone calls the manufacturer or local dealer and sets up a time and place for tools to be brought out and demonstrated. Who sets the criteria for the demo—your department or the dealer?
Many departments looking for new rescue tools rely heavily on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1936, Standard on Powered Rescue Tools. As such, dealers and departments alike will often have the cutter test materials listed in section 8.13 on hand at the demo to see for themselves how the tools do to meet the NFPA standard. I understand and agree that NFPA 1936 has a lot of good things in it. It is my opinion and experience that NFPA 1936 should only be a starting point and not an end all be all. Without getting too deep in the weeds regarding this NFPA standard, the test materials for cutter testing include round metal bar stock, flat metal stock, and angle metal stock. The test materials found in the standard are simply NOT similar to those materials found in today’s tough new vehicles. Remember too that test materials have NOT been subjected to forces and metal hardening that happens in a wreck (work worrying). Metals of varying hardness in new cars are now laser-laminated together (up to seven layers) and are designed to wad up (causing more hardening) and protect the ultra-high-strength core layer of the structure. Does your department have access to these types of vehicle parts to test at a demo? Does your dealer offer to bring such types of parts to demo the tools with?
I’ve been to and been involved in countless rescue tool demos. I’ve seen side-by-side shootout after shootout demos between rescue tool companies. I’ve seen these “testosterone fests” where someone thought it would be a great idea to use a Class 3 trailer hitch slider as the test material for the cutters. I’ve been in service for more than three decades, and I have NEVER had to cut a Class 3 hitch slider or anything that resembles one! Is that the type of demo that results in a good outcome? I think not. Your chosen brand, type, and model of rescue tools should not have to be “sold” to you by a well-meaning dealer. The tools should sell themselves as a result of doing what you want them to do and how the manufacturer supports them.
The point of all of this is simply to illustrate the need to “own your demos.” Have your ducks in a row prior to demo day. Remember—it’s not just about how the tools perform during a demo. Homework also needs to be done about warranties, field serviceability, maintenance requirements, and service contracts. Is your dealer reliable and responsive? What does the factory support look like? With all fairness to the manufacturers and dealers out there, they can’t know everything that you want to know about your specs unless you tell them. They are in the business of selling rescue tools. NFPA 1936 governs the minimum standards for the products they make and sell.
With an appreciation for what NFPA 1936 is and the clear understanding of the new metals and construction techniques of TODAY’S (not circa 1970s-1990s junkyard) vehicles, you will be armed and equipped to “own your rescue tool demos” and make the best purchase for your department.
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.