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Achieving efficiency with combination extrication tools

Size and technique matter when choosing and using the right cutter spreader combination extrication tools


What we commonly refer to as “combi-tools” in the world of auto extrication are an example of firefighter tool efficiency.


As departments face the increasing climate change of financial constraints and restricted manpower/resources, innovations that streamline operations are becoming more desirable and prevalent. What we commonly refer to as “combi-tools” in the world of auto extrication are an example of firefighter tool efficiency.

Combination extrication tools represent their namesake well. They are hydraulically powered tools that take design and performance features from spreaders and cutters and marry them together. These multi-purpose tools allow end users to purchase and carry one tool to perform both tasks. Manufacturers continue to enhance capabilities and ergonomics of these tools, and typically offer them in a wide range of sizes. It is important to point a few key criteria when choosing the right combi-tool for the task at hand.

1. Choosing the right combination extrication tool for the apparatus

Simply put, heavier tools almost always equate to more powerful tools. NFPA 1936: Standard on Powered Rescue Tools provides the framework for evaluating combi-tools and requires both spread force testing and cut force testing.

Regarding spreading, lowest spread force (LSF) is the most important number to reference. This represents the tool’s spreading power in its weakest configuration, which is when the arms are in the closed position. This is the position we will be generating the majority of our spreads from, so it is subsequently the most important number to reference.

Cut force is referenced through a series of letters (A, B, C, D, E) followed by numbers (1-9); e.g., A8, B9, C8, D9, E9. Each letter represents the specific type of material that was cut and each number represents the dimension of the material that was cut; with 1 representing the smallest diameter and 9 the largest. To receive a passing number in a material category, the tool must perform 12 consecutive cuts successfully.

When choosing the right combination extrication tool for your department, determine the primary purpose for the tool. If it is a stand-alone tool that you are hoping to accomplish the entire extrication with, then you should choose the strongest and largest tool available.

On the other hand, many departments elect to place combi-tools on first responder vehicles to get the job started. This implies that a full complement of specialized extrication tools are on their way and the combi-tools do not have to stand alone. In this approach, a smaller combi-tool may be optimal for speed and efficiency, and occupy less space on the rig.

2. Technique tips specific to combination extrication tools

Combi-tools are not the same as spreaders and cutters. It is important to point some key differences and how that changes the technique.

Let’s start with cutting. Combi-tools have straight blades that do not completely pass one another in the cutting arc. Additionally, the straight blades are more prone to rotational forces when loaded at the tips. The straight blades will have a natural tendency to move the tool away from the object that is being cut, which will reduce cut force and cut depth. Conversely, true cutters with curved geometry in the blades are designed to draw the tool into the material and maximize cut depth and cutting force. Combi-tool blades typically have some form of serration on them, which helps reduce some of the blade slippage.

When performing cutting with combination extrication tools, it is often helpful to use the tips of the tool to crush the material first and then advance the tool when it is completely opened and perform the cut. This approach will maximize the depth of the cut as well as the force of the cut by helping the tool stay deeply seated against the material.

When looking at the spreading applications, remember that the width of combi-tool tips is generally narrower than the width of a true spreader. This results in less point load distribution against the surfaces of material that are being pushed against. If attempting to pop a rear door for example, attempt to place the tips as close as possible to the latch plate or structural components on the C post and door. This will prevent punching through the sheet metal of the inner door skin and sheering out the contact points.

When the right combi-tool is chosen for the right job and the proper technique is deployed, they can be a tremendous asset and great solution for reducing cost and space on the rigs. Stay safe and train hard!

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.