Extrication Requires Effective Tools, Training and Thinking

A relief cut is made at the bottom of an A post with a Holmatro 4050NCT, which has more than 200,000 pounds of cutting force and over seven inches of blade opening.
A relief cut is made at the bottom of an A post with a Holmatro 4050NCT, which has more than 200,000 pounds of cutting force and over seven inches of blade opening. In many newer cars, the lower A post is not only thicker, but also more reinforced. (Holmatro Photo)
Generating a cutting force of 236,000 pounds, the Hurst Jaws of Life S511 Cutter is designed to handle today's vehicles with their stronger materials.
Generating a cutting force of 236,000 pounds, the Hurst Jaws of Life S511 Cutter is designed to handle today’s vehicles with their stronger materials.

The war has been going on for years. On one side are the automakers, who want to build the safest, strongest vehicles they can, and on the other are fire and rescue personnel, who sometimes have to cut and pry those cars open in a hurry.

Victory in the ongoing battles depends not just on sheer force and firepower, but on up-to-date training and smart tactics.

Eight to 10 years ago, the buzz phrase in extrication circles was micro-alloy steel, referring to a family of steels used by car makers that contain, along with carbon, very small quantities of other elements that help reduce the steel’s grain size.

These days, manufacturers and users of hydraulic extrication tools talk about high-strength low-alloy (HSLA) steel, a related group of steels that have better strength than typical carbon steel. Like the micro-alloy steels, HSLA steels get their desirable properties from having a closely controlled microstructure.

From the viewpoint of Tom Gaylord, a rescue instructor at the Morris County (N.J.) Public Safety Academy, what the car makers “do to protect people makes it tougher for us.”

Aaron Guenther, vice president of sales and marketing at Hurst Jaws of Life, is well aware of the difficulties confronted by his company’s customers. “Fire departments,” he said, “are becoming concerned about materials in new cars that they can’t cut through.” Those materials include HSLA steels, and of particular concern are the A and C posts, he said. The issue is how they’re being used by automakers to maximize protection for the vehicle’s passenger compartment.

Giff Swayne, president of Holmatro Inc., noted that car manufacturers are using internal bends and shapes in A posts, for example, to increase the strength of these components which form the vertical supports for the windshield and roof.

While vehicle materials and construction techniques have changed, the makers of hydraulic extrication equipment are working to improve the performance of their products, but do not foresee any significant breakthroughs on the horizon.

Swayne said Holmatro is looking at improving blade geometry, which he calls “a complicated engineering and development process.” It’s more difficult, he said, to optimize the performance of a cutter than a spreader.

He pointed COaxial Rescue Equipment (CORE) technology as a significant advance that Holmatro introduced a few years ago. The CORE system, which Swayne said has been popular with rescuers, uses a coaxial hose that consists of a high-pressure hydraulic line that’s surrounded and protected by the low-pressure return hose. In addition to simplifying setup, the company says the CORE system also eliminates the need for a dump valve on the hydraulic pump.

Guenther highlights the Moditech Crash Recovery System, which Hurst has been marketing in the U.S. The system is a comprehensive database of vehicle hazards such as air bags, high-voltage cables and reinforcing members, along with deactivation instructions for them. And if a vehicle is badly mangled and not easily identified as to exact model and year, a responder might be able to scan the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) barcode or enter the VIN manually to access the needed info.

Holmatro offers a similar product, The Rescuer’s Guide To Vehicle Safety Systems, which contains detailed information on the dangers that new vehicles pose for rescuers.

Two to three years ago, the push in the extrication tool industry was to make the equipment lighter, according to Todd Birkel, inside sales manager for TNT Rescue Systems.

Though weight is obviously an important factor, Birkel noted that it’s actually more of a problem at training sessions than it is at incidents. At training classes, he said, firefighters tend to hold the tools for longer periods, while at incidents the adrenaline and the faster pace of operations make weight somewhat less of an issue.

More Capable Tools

However, he said, “The trend is starting to swing back the other way,” toward more capable tools. With that in mind, he said TNT found that if a cutter is moving somewhat faster, it will cut better and be less likely to compress a steel component rather than make a clean cut. So the company is focusing on increasing performance of its hydraulic pumps. It introduced new models at the 2008 Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) that are twice as fast as the previous models.

Chuck Sheaffer, the sales manager at Amkus Rescue Systems, agrees the pendulum is swinging away from an emphasis on lighter tools to more-powerful tools for today’s alloys and manufacturing methods. “Everybody’s interested right now in a larger cutter,” he said.

Amkus is responding to that interest with a new product it calls the COT – Cutter of Tomorrow – which will debut at the FDIC trade showLike other extrication tool manufacturers, Amkus works with the major automakers and to get the latest models for testing.

Testing addresses not only what a cutter will cut, but how long it can hold up in the field under steady use, Sheaffer noted. “You have to put a lot of hours on these things to make sure they’ll do what you want them to do,” he said.

One Amkus product that Sheaffer said has been drawing interest lately is The Ultimate – a custom onboard PTO-driven system that can operate up to six Amkus tools simultaneously and can power tools up to 300 feet from the apparatus. The PTO drive needs no portable power unit, he said, which gives responders less heavy equipment to carry and frees up compartment space.

Sheaffer said Amkus is working on a battery-operated hydraulic system, but does not have a time frame for a finished product. Part of the problem, he said, is keeping up with rapidly advancing battery technology.

While hydraulic extrication tool manufacturers are trying to push performance higher, the improvements are really just incremental. As Swayne said, “The playing field is relatively defined.”

National Fire Protection Association Standard 1936 covering powered rescue tools now under revision will almost certainly bring few significant changes, said Lewis Austin, former chief of the Concord Township Fire Department in Elkhart, Ind., and chair of the NFPA 1936 committee. The current edition dates from 2005, and the 2010 updated edition for publication in November.

Most hydraulic rescue tools in service these days will do what’s expected of them in the majority of extrication scenarios. The key factor is the age of the tool versus the age of the vehicle. Swayne—who is Secretary of the NFPA 1936 Technical Committee—estimates that tools seven to eight years old will have problems with the latest model cars and cautioned it isn’t uncommon to find tools in use that are 15 years old.

Guenther warned, “If they’re using a 30-year-old tool on a brand-new vehicle, that’s not going to fly.” Manufacturers agree the decision about whether to buy new extrication tools should rest on an assessment of situations a fire-rescue agency is likely to face.

“The lion’s share of jobs are still door removals,” Birkel said, “not the glory wrecks that make the 6 o’clock news.” He serves in rural Wisconsin fire department and said he is not too worried about encountering the latest Lexus or BMW in his area.

Concerns about rescue tool ability to handle new vehicles are focused primarily on cutters. While spreaders still work about as well as they have in the recent past, Guenther said, “We need a stronger cutter that can cut a wider area.”

Swayne agreed that cutters are far more important today than they were in the 1980s. Patient well-being is enhanced as cutting is more controllable and predictable than spreading. If a given hydraulic tool might not do the job as expected on a recent-model car, where does that leave responders? The heart of the matter, according to the manufacturers and experts, is to remember that extrication tools and techniques are a means to an end. “The goal is to remove the patient as safely and effectively as possible,” said Guenther, not to cut the A post.

Attacking The Panels

Birkel made a similar point, noting that equipment specifications often sound pretty impressive, but “numbers don’t get people out of cars.” He said rescuers should push ahead and implement Plan A, but always have Plans B, C and D ready, as well.

As deputy chief of operations for the Forsyth County (Ga.) Fire Department, Dwight Clark said he teaches greater use of rams rather than cutters for extrication. That approach is tied to a strategy of attacking a car’s panels – the doors, the windshield, the center of the roof – where it is weaker, rather than its A, B and C columns, where it is strongest, especially on the latest models. “What we’re teaching,” he said, “is to dodge all this stuff.”

For example, Gaylord suggested if the B (center post) can’t be cut, rescuers can make a pie cut at the top of the post to free the roof, instead of severing the post. Rescue is not all about the tools, he said. “Rescue is thinking.”

Between Your Ears

Responders should remember that rescuers were doing vehicle extrications long before specialized power tools were around, he said. In the 1950s, he said, before spreader jaws and cutters were available, crews took roofs off vehicles in one piece using tools designed for auto frame repair, typically by breaking the welds where posts met the roof.

When Gaylord joined the fire service in 1973, rescue jaws were becoming widely used and responders starting flapping the roof. This was often safer, easier and less personnel-intensive than taking the whole roof off. Plus, he said, you don’t have to carry the loose roof off over the patients. Still, he said, “the older idea of disassembly rather than cutting sometimes gets lost in the sauce.”

“Over the years that I’ve been teaching,” Gaylord said, “I always emphasize that the most important rescue tool you’ve got is the one that sits between your ears. That’s the one that needs to be ‘upgraded’ on a regular basis.”

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