Tools of the Trade: The Heavies (Extraction Equipment)

March 5, 2021


tools of the trade

Blog By: FireRein Team

With files from Wikipedia, IFSTA Essentials of Fire Fighting and Fire Department Operations, 6th Edition, and

Free From Entanglement, A Twist On Tools

The Jaws of Life cut, rip, tear, and spread cars like tin cans. Driven by pressurized hydraulic oil or powerful battery packs, the cutter, spreader, and combination cutter/spreader are valuable life-saving tools for automobile extrication and forced entry.

Inventor George Hurst, already famous for his high-performance auto racing parts, was inspired to create the Hurst Rescue Tool in 1961 when he witnessed an accident at a stock car race. Hurst realized that common tools were inadequate for safe and rapid vehicle extrication; his hydraulic cutting tool was able to cut through steel roll cage bars without creating sparks that could ignite fire, or vibrations that could injure drivers, giving rescuers more time to provide aid to victims.

By 1972, Tim Smith and Mike Brick had taken Hurst’s cutter, now called the Jaws of Life, and developed it further to have the ability to spread the jaws open from a closed wedge position. The spreader jaws are able to be inserted into the gap between body panels to spread apart the sheet metal. Then, the cutter may be inserted to cut hinges and other attachment points. The combination cutter/spreader was the next natural evolution. Comprised of both tools in one, it offers increased versatility and reduces the amount of storage space used on the fire truck.

Many firefighters will guiltily admit that chopping up cars in training is one of the most fun activities of firefighting. There’s something very emotionally satisfying about turning a whole car back into a rolling chassis and a neatly-piled stack of body panels. Levity aside, it’s essential to train regularly to be able to perform with speed and precision when lives are on the line. Firefighters have to train hard to work together as a team to reduce operator fatigue and improve victims’ chances of survival.

When preparing to perform a vehicle extrication, make sure that the vehicle is chocked and shored to prevent movement that could cause injury to the rescue crew and patients. One useful tip is to cut or pull the tire valve stems to quickly flatten the tires to prevent shifting. Part of the crew should attempt to stabilize patients as much as possible before beginning extrication. Other crew members should use the spreader and cutters to pop the hood to gain access to the battery cables. It is crucial to disable the battery to prevent the risk of electric shock and inadvertent airbag deployment to rescuers and victims. Please note that insurance companies have insisted that firefighters stop cutting battery cables to minimize the costs of fixing the vehicle after the accident. Try to remove battery cables with tools when possible. Also, note that airbag systems may retain electrical current for twenty minutes and may still deploy without direct electrical input.

Depending on the severity of the accident and the injuries sustained, it may be necessary to remove the hood, door panels, and roof. The hood hinges are cut easily with the cutter, being careful not to cut the gas tube of any support shocks, and the hood removed to a safe location away from rescuers. Another crew member can break the window glass with a glass-breaker and pop the seatbelt tensioner covers with a long screwdriver. It’s good practice to mark the pillars with a scratch line or chalk at the place where the tensioners are mounted so the cutter operator knows where not to cut. Cutting the seatbelt tensioner could potentially cause severe injury.

Next, the front windshield and rear glass are removed, either by breaking or cutting with a saw. The combination cutter/spreader is an excellent choice for removing the doors. The spreader point is forcefully inserted into the gaps between the body panels to expose the hinges. With two cuts, the hinges are breached, and each door may be torn off of the locking post and stored with the removed hood. The pillars are then cut, starting with the first, or A, pillar. The centre B pillar is cut next, and finally the rear C pillar is cut and the roof removed. Alternately, the C pillar may be partially cut, and the roof peeled backward.

In the most severe cases, it may be necessary to roll the dash forward to free an entrapped victim. The cutter is used to make relief cuts to the lower front fender supports, then the spreader or ram is used to force the sheet metal to roll forward, pushing the steering wheel and dash up and back away from the patient. The cutter can be used to cut through the lower metal portion of the steering wheel to provide extra clearance to rescuers.

FireRein salutes visionary inventors George Hurst, Tim Smith, and Mike Brick for their contribution to the Fire Service. We’re proud to join our first responder colleagues who continue to depend on their “Tool of the Trade” every day.

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