Hurst Jaws Of Life Shifts Gears For Future Growth

Heather Williams cleans and preserves link pins for rescue tools.
Heather Williams cleans and preserves link pins for rescue tools. Hurst uses heat-treated alloy steels for its products. (Fire Apparatus Photo by Jon Gilbert Fox)
Randy Burleson assembles a reservoir on an Octoflow.
The Octoflow is a pto-driven power unit mounted on apparatus which allows the use of up to eight tools. Randy Burleson, who has worked for the company 10 years, assembles a reservoir on an Octoflow. (Fire Apparatus Photo)
Hurst Jaws Of Life uses a variety of CNC machines to make parts for its tools.
Hurst Jaws Of Life uses a wide variety of computer-numeric-controlled (CNC) machines to make parts for its tools. Some machines are so sophisticated they run by themselves with minimal operator intervention.
Hurst makes Airshore stabilizing struts. Dan Hicks assembles a strut for an Airshore kit.
Hurst’s Shelby, N.C., plant makes Airshore stabilizing struts, a new product for the company. Dan Hicks assembles the different components of the strut for an Airshore kit.
Using specialty tools Karen Dixon inserts a Heli-Coil in a Challenger rescue tool cylinder.
Using specialty tools, arranged at handy locations for ergonomic comfort, Karen Dixon inserts a Heli-Coil in a Challenger rescue tool cylinder.
Anthony LaMacchia marks a power unit during final assembly.
Anthony LaMacchia, who has worked at Hurst for 13 years, marks a power unit during final assembly. (Fire Apparatus Photo)
Spreader, cutters and power units are among the most popular products made by Hurst Jaws Of Life.
Spreader, cutters and power units are among the most popular products made by Hurst Jaws Of Life. (Fire Apparatus Photo by Jon Gilbert Fox)
Kenny Frey is Hurst's director of operations.
Kenny Frey is Hurst’s director of operations. (Fire Apparatus Photo)
Jack Hankins, vice president and general manager, joined the company last fall.
Jack Hankins, Hurst Jaws of Life’s vice president and general manager of the Hydraulic Equipment Group For North America, joined the company last fall.
Jim Riggs is Hurst's manager of operational excellence.
Jim Riggs is Hurst’s manager of operational excellence. He is responsible for making sure the company runs efficiently.
Rodney Porter works in the shop where he runs the Kira machine.
Rodney Porter has been with Hurst 19 years working in the shop where he often runs the Kira machine, milling and drilling end caps for the MOC model cutters.

When it comes to hydraulic extrication tools, there’s no argument that Hurst has a lock on the most recognizable trade name in the industry – the Jaws of Life.

“There are other rescue tools out there, but we are like Kleenex,” says Kenny Frey, director of operations at the Hurst plant in Shelby, N.C. As Kleenex became the generic word for tissue, “It’s the same way with rescue tools,” he says. “Anytime you see rescue tools on television, no matter who made it, they always refer to it as Jaws of Life.”

Hurst enjoys that reputation for a couple of reasons. Jaws of Life was the first hydraulic rescue tool on the market – the original rescue tool. Secondly, the company has a reputation for high quality and durability.

George Hurst, the founder of Hurst Performance Products, developed the first Jaws of Life rescue tool in 1969. He wanted something to free race drivers from the “jaws of death,” hence the name Jaws of Life was a natural.

The company is preparing for the future with new leadership. Last fall, Jack Hankins, a long-time figure in the fire service industry, became Hurst Jaws of Life’s vice president and general manager of the Hydraulic Equipment Group for North America.

Bob Linster, Hurst’s vice president of sales and marketing, a man affectionately known as “Mr. Hurst” in recognition of his longevity with the company, is preparing to retire at the end of this month.

Roots In Racing

Linster started with the Hurst company in 1969 when it was known for performance racing equipment, particularly gear shifters. “When George Hurst developed the tool, it was designed to save lives, not to make money,” he recalls. “Over the years, we have developed and marketed a product that is dependable, durable and consistent.”

Hankins recognizes the value of  the name.

“I think it’s fair to say that our brand is certainly the  most recognized in rescue tools worldwide,” he says.

Hurst is part of IDEX Corporation’s Fire & Safety/Diversified Products Segment, a worldwide company that includes Hale Products, Class 1, Hurst, Vetter Air Bags, Lukas rescue tools, and other related industrial companies. Approximate annualized sales for this segment exceed  $200 million.

Hale Products bought Hurst in 1984. At the time, Hurst was making an emergency response vehicle using Hale pumps and Hale was a vendor of Hurst. In 1994 IDEX bought Hale Products and later acquired LUKAS, a Germany-based rescue tool builder.

Shelby Headquarters

Headquarters for Hurst Jaws of Life is an 80,000-square-foot facility in Shelby, N.C. The facility employs nearly 60 people manufacturing rescue cutters, spreaders, combination tools and their power supplies.

The LUKAS Centaur line gave Hurst 10,000 psi high pressure mineral oil rescue tools that complement Hurst’s 5,000 psi synthetic hydraulic fluid tools making Hurst the only company in North America to offer both. Linster notes that LUKAS was the second company to market with rescue tools, right behind Hurst. Together they have more than 60 years’ experience building rescue tools.

Hankins says Hurst is a much stronger company with its connection to IDEX. “With IDEX Corporation’s acquisitions of LUKAS and, later, Vetter and Airshore, we are uniquely positioned to provide comprehensive solutions for lifting, shoring and stabilization, and extrication. IDEX ensures we have the resources necessary to maintain our reputation for innovation and market leadership,” he says.

Breadth Of Product

 “Hankins adds, “From bags, to struts, to cutting and spreading tools, rams, we’ve got it. There’s no one who can compete with us for breadth of product and quality of product as well.”

Hurst also manufactures and markets a wide variety of power supplies, from battery powered backpack units, to gasoline and diesel engine-driven units with capabilities to run more than one tool at a time. It also makes the vehicle-mounted, pto-driven Octoflow, a multi-circuit hydraulic power unit integrated into fire and rescue vehicle that runs up to eight rescue tools simultaneously.

Hurst even supplies products for far reaching applications such as train rerailing and aircraft lifting using air bags or hydraulic jacks as well as inflatable tents and decontamination shelters for disaster management.

While the diversification of product is a strength, Hankins believes the name Hurst Jaws of Life has been under-utilized and he intends to bring all products under the Jaws of Life umbrella.

“We need to build on our core brand, which is Hurst Jaws of Life,” he says.

He cites Hurst’s long list of loyal and high-profile customers, including the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), Chicago, Miami Metro Dade, San Francisco, New Orleans and dozens of points between, plus the U.S. Navy and Air Force. The tools have been used at disaster sites worldwide.

Tools Are Used Everywhere

Hurst tools were used at the Pentagon and at Ground Zero on September 11. Hankins says, “They were used at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, earthquakes, natural disasters, terrorists attacks -anywhere there’s a rubble pile and an extrication issue.”

He says, “There are companies that do very well with rescue tools and there are companies that do very well with shoring and lifting products, but there’s no other company that does all three well.”

Linster says the company got its first big notice in July 1981 when a walkway collapsed at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City, Mo., killing 114 people and injuring more than 200.

“Hurst tools were there to lift big concrete slabs off people,” Linster says. “From there, people started realizing the value of the tools. They offered quick and easy response in a critical life saving situation where hours and minutes were critical. In the years since the Hyatt collapse there have been evolutionary changes in the way rescues are conducted and tools are used.

Linster, who was personally responsible for designing several patented tools, calls Hurst tools  “A Godsend for humanity.”

He says “They give the rescuers the chance to save people in the Golden Hour. In too many cases, people will bleed out if it takes too long for extrication. As the structural integrity of vehicles improves, Hurst is on the leading edge in providing time saving solutions to these challenges.”

While Hurst’s strengths are a recognizable brand name and diverse product offerings, Hankins knows product quality is just as important.

“We’ve made a product that is extremely reliable, very durable, one that firefighters look at as tried and true,” he says. “You can beat it up and it keeps on working. There’s no substitute for that in the fire service.”

Hurst has customers who are very demanding. “They want to be able to throw something out of a second-story window and know that it will work just fine when they pick it up and use it again,” says Hankins.

No one knows that more than Kenny Frey who is responsible for product quality, production and manufacturing.

“People out on the floor have pride in what they do and take great care in what they do,” he says. “Everyone understands that if they don’t make a good product and it fails, somebody could die. That’s a powerful statement and it lends itself to a lot of job satisfaction.”

 “We are by no means the least expensive rescue tools, but in most cases, you get what you pay for,” Frey says.

Hurst tools are designed with the highest integrity and best quality possible. “We stand behind our products and we back them up with a two-year warranty.”

The company encourages cross training and employees learn all aspects of building the tools.

“This is truly a team environment,” he says. “Top to bottom, it’s all about people. Everyone is just as important as the next.”

Jim Riggs, Hurst’s manager of operational excellence, agrees with Frey’s assessment.

Team Oriented

“I know this is cliché, but our business is very team oriented,” he says Riggs is quick to point out that the company boasts an average employment tenure of 16 years with employees demonstrating a passion for the life-saving nature of their work.

 Riggs’ primary job is making sure things run smoothly and efficiently. He is responsible for reorganizing the shop  using the latest mixed model value stream management methodology, a comprehensive approach to process improvement, not only for manufacturing, but also in office processes.  Throughout the Hurst facility, you will find regular references to process improvement tools such as Six Sigma, Kaizen, Lean, and 5S. According to Riggs, the goal is to drive continuous process improvement that ensures consistency in meeting ever changing customer critical needs such as on time delivery.  The manufacturing area is arranged so that raw materials to finished products flow continously from left to right, with stock coming in on the left and finished tools shipping to the right.

In between, an impressive phalanx of computer numeric controlled (CNC) machine tools cut, drill, turn and machine the raw, high-quality, aircraft-grade aluminum and heat-treated alloy steel that become Hurst tools.

“When you are trapped in a car, the last thing you want to hear is the tools won’t work. That’s why doing it right the first time is so important to us,” says Riggs. “When that happens, rescuers will have to remove victims by hand and that’s when you lose a lot of time and people get hurt.”

Tools Caught On

Linster remembers the days when hand tools were the only things available to take cars apart and emergency responders were not anxious to spend big dollars for heavy equipment.

“Early tools were built out of stainless steel and titanium and that made the tools heavy and expensive,” he says. “You’d go and knock on the door at a fire station, show the tools and then tell them the system cost was $3,000 and they’d freak out.”

It didn’t take long for some of the more progressive fire departments to catch on after seeing Hurst tool demonstrations. In approximately 11 minutes, Linster says demonstrators could completely tear apart a car, something that would take half a day with hand tools.

Keeping Ahead With Safety

With more and more safety built into vehicles, the auto industry is using built-in roll cages of hardened and reinforced metal and high-strength alloys. Hurst has had to keep up, developing very powerful cutters with heat-treated tool steel blades and spreaders with heat-treated alloy steel tips to literally cut and pull vehicles away from victims.  Hurst also led the development of tools for use in hybrid vehicles where electricity can be a significant hazard.  The company even offers a software package that gives rescuers specific details necessary to work efficiently on most vehicle models.

“You can replace cars, but people are irreplaceable,” says Riggs. “We are continuously working to provide better, more effective designs. For example we do continuous testing to perfect jaw profile geometry, particularly on cutters.”

Hurst makes different rescue tips and cutters for different applications. The company constantly strives to hit a balance between high power and lightweight tools

“You can’t have a 125-pound unit that takes four firefighters to use,” Riggs says. “If you’ve got a truck 150 feet off the road in a ravine, you need something to get down there and do the job.”

Many Power Sources

“Hurst’s heaviest tool is the Defender 28 at about 60 pounds,” says Riggs. “But it has one of the highest power to weight density ratings in the industry.” The company also makes small, battery-powered tools that are ideal for fast extrication and minor entrapment, like a driver’s foot caught in pedals.

To achieve the balance between strength and weight Hurst searches for tool materials that make the most sense.

“You don’t want to use a steel bar if an aluminum bar will do it,” says Frey, the director of operations. “The idea is to make the tool as strong as possible, but also as light as possible.”

As Hankins settles into his vice president’s job, he talks about what motivates people in the industry. “We are not selling meaningless widgets with no purpose in society,” he says. “We make a product that really does matter.”

Hurst isn’t resting on its laurels. It has many innovative and perhaps revolutionary tools in development.

“We are looking at technology breakthroughs that, in the next few years, could change the landscape of the rescue tool business dramatically,” Hankins says. “What we are working on could potentially change how people do their jobs with respect to rescue work.”

With Hurst products saving lives every day, “That gives us fulfillment and complete satisfaction,” says Hankins.

For information call 800-537-2659 or go to

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