Strut Systems Revolutionize Vehicle Stabilization

Rescue 42 struts
A tanker is suspended and stabilized with Rescue 42 struts in Walla Walla, Wash., last August. The tanker was lifted by tightening a ratchet strap connecting the bases of the struts. Four firefighters stabilized the vehicles and extricated the patient in less than 15 minutes. (Rescue 42 Photo)
ZMAG base plates
A car is stabilized with ZMAG base plates, tops and 4-by-4s by a team in a Transportation Emergency Rescue Committee competition. (ZMAG Photo)
Res-Q-Jack's patented roof-resting technique
Res-Q-Jack’s patented roof-resting technique is used by rescuers from the Oceanside (N.Y.) Fire Department to stabilize a car involved in a one-car rollover accident in front of the firehouse. The patient suffered minor injuries.

Something happened in the 1990s to spark a bit of a revolution in the field of vehicle extrication.

A number of volunteer firefighters in different parts of the country began working independently of each other to build new tools to stabilize wrecked vehicles faster and more effectively with the idea of improving the chances for survival of patients, as well as the safety of the rescuers.

They developed an array of strut-related products that came to be known as tensioned buttress stabilization systems. Sales have grown considerably over the past decade, and prices range widely – from $400 to $10,000 and more – depending on the sophistication and variety of applications of the tools and the size of the kit.

Some struts are built with wood, while others telescope and are made from aluminum, steel and advanced composite materials. The two leading stabilization strut manufacturers – Res-Q-Jack and Rescue 42 – offer jacks with their systems.

The new tools led to the development of new rescue techniques – including lifting vehicles without the use of jacks.

Ron Moore, a battalion chief in the McKinney (Texas) Fire Department who has been teaching and writing about vehicle extrication for many years, calls the development of stabilization struts one of the most significant advances in vehicle rescue in 10 years.

“It is so radically different in how it improves responder safety and responder capabilities that there is no turning back,” he said. “If you are doing vehicle rescue in today’s real world, you must have some means of using a tensioned buttress stabilization system, a strut, or you really are not where you should be.”

Manufacturers of stabilization struts estimate less than half the fire departments in the United States have them.

Moore has support for that estimate. He said he was in California in December to conduct an advanced seminar with representatives of 18 fire departments in the Monterey-Carmel area. “They were using struts for the first time,” he said. “My experience as a trainer has been the rollout of strut capabilities among rescue squads and fire departments is still in its infancy.”

One of the earliest strut pioneers is Mike Schmidt, a municipal water works employee and volunteer firefighter in Glen Rock, Pa., who designed, built and sold the first commercial kit built specifically for vehicle stabilization in the mid-1990s.

He describes the concept this way: “All we’re doing is building triangles.”

His product, ZMAG Rescue ground pads, use 4-by-4 wood timbers to make struts. A kit is simple and inexpensive and has hardly changed over the past 12 years. It contains four pieces – two base plates with ratchet straps bolted to the bases and two tops. When it was introduced, it sold for $295, and the price today is $395.

“At 3 a.m. how much fumble factor does your average rescue crew really need, how many moving parts do you want to deal with?” asks Schmidt. “You want to throw something on the ground, the big square hole is where the big square piece of wood goes, and you’re done.”

Schmidt drew his inspiration from U.S. and Canadian competitions conducted by the Transportation Emergency Rescue Committee (TERC), which is where he first saw a team of firefighters use a tensioned buttress.

“It was basically a 4-by-4 that a team would buy at Home Depot, cut a taper on either end, bore a hole through it low, and they’d put a chain and a link through that hole,” he recalled. “Then they’d prop it against the car, hook up a one-ton cable come-along to the chain and wherever they could find an attachment point on the car and crank it tight. I stood back, and it was like, that’s pretty cool, it’s a triangle.”

Schmidt had created ZMAG in 1990 to produce a small pouch of hand tools for rescuers responding to motor vehicle accidents. He said his only thought in designing his ground pads was to stabilize a vehicle on its side.

Crazy Stuff

“Since then we’ve done a lot of crazy stuff,” he said. “It’s to the point now, we can stabilize a vehicle in any position, on its roof or resting on another one.”

He said he has been to nearly 100 TERC rescue contests – “the most educational things I’ve ever been a part of” – and credits the participating teams with developing innovative uses of his tool. “They make me look good,” he said. “The teams perfected the tool, not me.”

One improvement he did make was producing steel couplings to join two 4-by-4s to increase the lengths of struts. The couplings sell for $40 a pair.

Sales of the ZMAG tool were brisk in the early days. “When I was the only guy, I couldn’t make them fast enough. Plus I made a tool that’s indestructible,” Schmidt said. “Now I’m not selling as many as I used to because of the competition.”

In the late 1990s, a little north of Pennsylvania in Spencer, N.Y., another volunteer firefighter got interested in improving extrication.

Cris Pasto, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, had created his own company, the Cepco Tool Company, in 1992 to produce the Bowrench Deck Tool, which he designed to install warped decking. He followed that up by inventing another tool, the QuikJack Hardwood Flooring Jack.

Frustration As Motivation

About that time he became a volunteer firefighter and said he  “took a liking to extrication.”

While responding to accidents as a firefighter, he said he found it difficult to try to stabilize a vehicle with 4-by-4s and rope. “I specifically remember a car we had over an embankment,” he said. “When I got on scene, it was so frustrating because we just didn’t have something to quickly do it.”

That got him thinking. No long afterward he went to extrication training and learned some new ways of using 4-by-4s to stabilize a car on its side.

“That was a lot better than what I was doing, but it was taking a long time too,” he said. “I thought there’s got to be a simpler way, and I realized that the hardwood flooring jack we make, which we use horizontally, could be stood up and pinch the car.”

He talked to the instructor, went back to his shop and a couple of months later had developed a tool.

“I was just going to make equipment for our local department,” he said. “The word started spreading, and another neighboring department would want one and then we realized we were in the rescue business.”

He called his tool Res-Q-Jack and his first commercial model was the RJ-1, introduced in 1999.

“The adjustable stands were simple real thin steel, extremely lightweight with a simple base and a pointed head,” he said. “They worked good, but then we needed end fittings that were more compatible with the vehicle.”

Catching Up To Customers

Later versions of the tool were developed to make it more versatile and easier to use, to increase the setup speed and to give it a greater load capacity.

“I was told there was no way you could use equipment for stabilization as a lifting device,” Pasto recalled. “I was very new in the business, and I said, ‘OK, I can abide by that,’ and we would actually print in our early literature, not for lifting, for stabilization only.”

Then he said he went to a New York state chiefs show and firefighters from one department told him how they had used his equipment to lift a side-resting car off of a woman’s head.

“I said what would be the reason you can’t save a life and lift a car,'” he recalled. “We actually had to catch up to our customers.”

As he traveled, Pasto said he saw a need for developing what he calls “repeatable techniques” so firefighters could use the equipment as quickly and effectively as possible. He said his company was awarded a patent for a technique it developed to stabilize a roof-resting vehicle.

“We’re not replacing airbags and we’re not replacing hydraulic tools, but sometimes a different tool is the right tool for a particular job in terms of speed, efficiency and getting it done,” he said.

Over the years, he said his work with vehicle stabilization and extrication became a love-hate relationship. “I like developing the equipment for it and I like the training,” he said, “but I hate the actual rescue because of the dead people and the hurt people.”

Pasto sold his company in 2004, but he maintains a relationship with it as a trainer and consultant, still working on refinements to the equipment he developed.

Rewarding Business

He said he finds the rescue business far more rewarding than making tools for construction contractors. “It’s great to make somebody’s job easier,” he said, “but it’s a lot better to save a life.”

While Pasto was developing his Res-Q-Jack on the East Coast, a firefighter on the West Coast named Tim O’Connell was pursuing stabilization ideas of his own that would lead to a similar product.

O’Connell is a technology buff who had been in the U.S. Navy, serving on nuclear submarines during the late 1970s and early 1980s. When he left the Navy, he became a volunteer firefighter in Chico, Calif., got interested in extrication and became the first instructor in the area.

“Stabilization was really just one of those stupid things you had to do a little bit of before you started using the big sexy tools,” he said.

Dash Roll Inspiration

The inspiration for his first tool came while encountering problems associated with dash rolls. “You’d go to push from the base of the B pillar and your ram, instead of pushing the dash up, would punch back down through the base of the B pillar because it would be all rusted out,” he said. “So I invented a product which we still sell, it was called a ram plate.”

The plate, he said, was developed in the 1980s to give rams a solid base of support on rocker panels. Like Pasto, he began making his product for neighboring fire departments. He left the area for a few years, and when he returned in the 1990s firefighters had named his product O’Connell plates. He decided to go into business and formed Rescue 42 in 1995. He saw other possibilities for what he decided to call the O-Plate.

“Since I was going to make something to carry, I decided to make it do other things, one of which was being a big hook that you could pull things with,” he said. “We were out playing, and we ended up taking a 4-by-4 and putting it down in that big hook and using a come-along and pushing against a car to stabilize it.”

O’Connell had created a tensioned buttress using his O-Plate, but found it cumbersome to carry 4-by-4s. “We started playing with different ideas and different materials,” he said, “and we finally settled on steel signpost because it was extendable.”

His company started selling its TeleCribbing Stabilization System in 2000. A year later, spurred by Res-Q-Jack’s equipment, O’Connell added a strut jack, but his was detachable because he said jacks are rarely needed in vehicle stabilization.

“If you’ve got an 8-strut system and you’re carrying one jack versus carrying 8 jacks, you’ve just eliminated several hundred pounds of weight,” he said, “and you’ve eliminated several thousands of dollars worth of cost and you’ve eliminated several square feet of storage space.”

He said it was not long before he began looking at advanced composite materials because he wanted to make his struts lighter, stronger and less prone to corrosion, as well as adding a safety factor because a composite strut would not conduct electricity.

“One of the key things in my philosophy is I have eliminated as many ways for a firefighter to make a mistake as I possibly can,” he said. “A frequent problem is vehicle crashes into power poles with energized wires in vicinity of the crash. Something that always made me nervous was a guy with an 8-foot steel pole walking around a car at 2 in the morning in a rain storm or a snow storm and maybe he hasn’t seen that wire.”

Rescue 42 made its first composite system in 2004 and late last year upgraded to a more advanced composite material that incorporates Kevlar.

Meanwhile, O’Connell’s competitor, Res-Q-Jack, is offering a new product this year it calls the X Strut, which is made out of aluminum and has a detachable jack. It is billed a lighter weight, heavy-duty, multi-purpose tool that can be transformed from a shoring strut to a lifting strut in seconds.

Tripling Sales

There are more than a half-dozen brands of vehicle stabilization struts on the market – some made by manufacturers whose primary product lines are geared toward building collapse and trench rescue – but Rescue 42 and Res-Q-Jack have distanced themselves from the competition. Rescue 42’s most popular kit sells for about $3,000. Res-Q-Jack’s kits range in price from $2,000 to about $10,000.

Pasto said Res-Q-Jack has tripled its sales since he sold the company in 2004. O’Connell declined to talk about his sales volume, except to say that Res-Q-Jack’s impressive growth has been “significantly stunted” by Rescue 42.

Getting firefighters to try vehicle stabilization struts has not been easy, according to the manufacturers. “For the most part people said, I don’t see the need for that,” O’Connell said. “So one of our main challenges was education. There are tens of thousands of our videos and DVDs out there that we put out free to educate and inform departments that there are better ways to do things.”

The Wow Factor

Ron Moore advises fire departments interested in buying stabilization struts to begin by evaluating their needs and how much they are willing to spend.

“You can come up with a plan based on your budget to do a two or three or four strut system, with four functional struts and all the accessories being what I would consider the high end,” he said. “Once you decide what you want to spend, then you have to see these systems for real and compare their ability to stabilize a car against what you already have in your inventory.”

The demonstration and comparison, he said, will be dramatic.

“Once a fire department sees and feels and goes through an actual deployment in a training scenario,” Moore said, “the wow factor alone will let them know, we’ve got to have this, this is the real deal, we’ve got to have this.”

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