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5 tips for better extrication tool results

Here’s how to avoid common vehicle rescue mistakes and get the most out of our extrication tools


I spend a lot of time working with end users on extrication tool techniques. It is always interesting to watch the same objective performed over and over again and it yields different results each time.

For example, we can take a simple door pop maneuver and use the exact same spreader, applied to the same push point and have a wide range of results.

The first variable in this equation is the vehicle itself. However, there is another major factor, which is often overlooked or dismissed. It is the small details of applying the tool in the optimal way.

Let’s delve into these finer details that I have picked up over the years. We will look at five points that may help improve your overall tool technique and reduce your frustration during extrications.

1. Speed

Rescuers need to develop a feel for both the material they are working against and the tool they are operating. Hydraulic tools are not on/off tools. They have variable speed control.

This allows rescuers to ease into a movement or blast right into it. Knowing when to apply the right speed is imperative.

When trying to get a ram to bite into the sheet metal and make a push without slipping, apply gentle trigger pressure to allow the tips time to find their home and get seated.

I consistently see rescuers become frustrated and waste tool movements on hyper-speed opening and closing that develops too much momentum and causes the tips to slip.

This also applies to spreaders. Smaller and slower movements are often the best movements when trying to establish the initial push points.

Conversely, know when to ramp it up. Many rescuers only engage a portion of the potential speed of the tool when they need it most. This is usually a result of not knowing the tool or not being attentive to the tool and managing the trigger.

Full speed movements are needed when the tips are seated well and we need that big fast push to spread the door. In the case of cutters, when the blades are in the right orientation to the material and you are ready to shear through it, fully engage the trigger and take it home.

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2. Cutter angles

When applying cutters, start with analyzing the material you want to cut.

First, try to keep your blades perpendicular to the material. Approaching at other angles can place awkward side loads on the blades and potentially lead to blade shears.

Second, try to minimize the material resistance. To understand this, think of a door hinge. If the hinge is a segment of flat stock steel that is ½-inch thick and 3-inches wide, it has two possible perpendicular approach angles.

One angle is to attack the width of the hinge. The cutter would be parallel to the ground. This is the least desired approach because we would be attempting to compress and cut 3 inches of material, which will only be compressed by a ½-inch portion of the blades.

On the flip side, approaching the hinge straight downward with the tool perpendicular to the ground would allow the tool to cut only a ½ inch of material with 3 inches of blade.

The last angle consideration for cutters is the tool response. When cutting a B post for instance, if the tool pivots toward a side that you don’t want it to, the initial angle needs to be tweaked. Simply open the tool, and start your initial cut more in the opposite direction of swing.

Unless you are cutting a perfectly symmetrical piece like a pipe, the tool will always find its own resting position by pivoting around the material. Don’t fight the tool; change the angle.

3. Spreader angles

When it comes to spreaders, one of the biggest delay applications is ineffective movements. This is when one of the spreader tips keep slipping or traveling.

Again, slower and smaller movements initially help seat the tips. The angle component comes into play next.

If the tip on your right keeps slipping and traveling, reposition the angle of the spreader so that you work the handle or base toward your right before spreading. If the left tip then slips, reposition with the base or handle a little more toward your left and you will discover that sweet spot where the tool can push effectively.

Also, be aware of the arc of the spreader arms. This can be seen in dash lifts. Rescuers often set the tips into the A post cut from an upright stance.

This usually means that the tips of the spreader are much lower than the handle. That translates to an offset arc that will naturally drive the bottom of the A post outwards and the top of the A post and dash inward.

Simply bending your knees and placing the spreader into the A cut so that the tool is parallel with the ground will help ensure a much more vertical spread with equal arc forces being applied to the top and bottom half of the A post.

Hand and eye PPE for vehicle extrication

4. Strength points

Understand the engineering behind your tools. The strength of a cutter is at the pivot joint where the connecting bolt and nut are located. The closer the material is to the pivot point, the stronger the cut.

There are different blade designs on the market. Straight blades are curved at the pivot joint and can point cut pretty effectively because they will naturally pull the tool into the material as the blades move towards one another. This forces the material into the pivot point.

The opposite blade design is commonly referred to as a beak design. These blades are great for piercing cuts, but struggle with cutting heavier materials unless the tool is deep seated to put the material as close as possible to the pivot point. If you don’t get what you want out of a cut attempt, try it again with a deeper set.

Spreaders are the opposite. Their strength is all the way out at the tip of the arms. There are only a few spreaders with designed load points on the midpoints of the arms.

Avoid placing materials on the midpoints of the arms on most spreaders, because you will develop significantly less force and may damage the arms.

If you squeeze a fender rail or spread a connection and you can’t generate the response you are looking for, pull the tool back a little and trying again. You may gain that additional force you are searching for.

5. Operating cycle

Understand the pump stages that drive your tool. Far too often I see rescuers give up on a tool movement because it appears to bog down or stop moving.

It is imperative to understand that most tools are multi-stage. These tools have delay and a speed change when they shift stages; that can take up to seven seconds.

Give your tool the opportunity to do what it was designed to do. When the tool appears to max out, be patient. Let the system build pressure and engage the next pump stage.

To apply this knowledge to your operating capabilities, you need to specifically know your tool system. How many pump stages does it have and how long does each jump take? Way too often tools will get a bad wrap for not being capable of making a cut or a spread.

I encourage you to get out to your local salvage yard and apply some of these considerations. These details may make a significant impact on the next extrication you have.

Be patient and methodical. Look for the weak points in the material that you want to alter and use the tools with the right speed, angle and maximization of strength and operating cycle.

Stay safe and train hard.

This article, originally published on November 10, 2016, has been updated.

Dalan Zartman is a 20-year career veteran of the fire service and president and founder of Rescue Methods, LLC. He is assigned to a heavy rescue and is an active leader as a member of both local and national tech rescue response teams. Zartman has delivered fire and technical rescue training courses and services around the globe for more than 15 years. He is also an international leader in fire-based research, testing, training and consulting related to energy storage, and serves as the COO at the Energy Security Agency. Zartman serves as regional training program director and advisory board member for the Bowling Green State University State Fire School. He is a certified rescue instructor, technical rescue specialist, public safety diver, fire instructor II, firefighter II, and EMTP.