Extrication tools: What the experts say

Affordability, capability and the future of extrication tools are just some of the topics on the table

The automotive industry seems to roll out new safety features, new fuel sources and new configurations each year. This has kept firefighters trying to keep up as well as those who make extrication tools.

To help keep pace, we gathered three extrication tool experts and put to them both practical and speculative questions about these tools.


What's been the most significant development in extrication tools in the last five years?

Robert Avsec: The shift from gasoline engine power plants to electric motors has done a lot to make the extrication scene safer for firefighters and less threatening to the vehicle occupants they're working to extricate. The electric power plant is also more reliable.

Chuck Sheaffer: The development of more powerful cutters and increased flow in pumps has improved the performance of our systems.

Meet the Experts

Robert Avsec is FireRescue1's fire equipment columnist as well as a retired chief with more than 26 years in the fire service. He also was an active instructor, teaching for more than 10 years at the National Fire Academy.

Hal Eastman, who works with Genesis Rescue Systems is a Battalion Chief over special operations for the Tallahassee Fire Department, where he has 23 years of service. Eastman is a two-time TERC world extrication champion and has served as competition judge for three years.

Chuck Sheaffer has served as sales manager for Amkus Rescue Systems since 2003; he was a distributor for more than 30 years. He is a former Pennsylvania state vehicle rescue instructor and has been active in on-track motor sports rescue since 1975. 

Hal Eastman: The ability to cut boron/UHSS steels. Many correctly assume that the auto industry's use of these new materials has pushed the rescue tool industry to improve the performance of their cutting tools.

But many incorrectly assume that the auto industry's use of these new materials is strictly for the safety of the passengers. In fact, the use of these UHSS steels is primarily to meet the EPA requirements for fuel mileage. Improved safety is an offshoot of the lighter, but stronger steels.

The importance of safety will wax and wane with consumers depending upon the economy, fads, etc. But EPA standards will never reverse, they will continue to increase, thus increasing the need for ever stronger rescue tools to get the job done.


What area will we likely see improvements in the next five years?

Eastman: For sure more power, as vehicle manufacturers continue to use exotic steels to meet EPA standards. We feel that there are more uses for rescue tools than what rescue personnel typically use them for, such as in the fields of confined space, technical rescue, and search and rescue to name a few.

Sheaffer: Unfortunately more power equates to heavier tools. However, efficiency is something we are working on, which makes better use of the power currently available.

Asvec: Continued improvement towards creating the smallest and lightest weight equipment capable of doing the job is where the industry should continue heading. The available compartment space on apparatus is always going to be an issue as is the available personnel to carry equipment to the work site and carry out the extrication tasks.

If hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles continue to grow in popularity, will that change the look and function of extrication tools?

Eastman: It seems that the tools are the same, albeit much stronger because of the exotic steels used in manufacture of these vehicles. But certainly the techniques and education in using the rescue tools has drastically changed due to many new hazards for rescue personnel in and around these types of vehicles.

Sheaffer: We don't believe so.

Asvec: I don't see the look and function of tools changing as much as how their capabilities are applied. I think we've got to get better at using technology such as wireless broadband applications on wireless devices like tablets, to arm our people with the exact information necessary to work on the vehicle confronting them at the time.

All vehicles, not just hybrids, are more complicated and there is no "one size fits all" approach to extrication. Specific information in real time so that the extrication can be better planned.

Is speed of deployment a concern?

Sheaffer: Absolutely. Eliminating the time required to deploy power units, unroll hoses and connect tools reduces time needed during the golden hour to prepare for extrication. The use of reels with pre-connected tools can considerably reduce deployment time.

Eastman: Speed of deployment is always a concern, but it always takes a backseat to safety and going into your evolution with a plan. No one just grabs a tool off a truck, runs up to the scene and goes to work — not considering the safety themselves, those working with them and of course the patient.

Where you will see improvement is not necessarily in speed of deployment, but rather the method the tools are deployed such as airlift by helicopter, rappelling down into a ravine with a tool on your back, ect. This is where you have already seen a difference in rescue tool design and ability, for special operations.

Avsec: I'm not so much concerned about speed of deployment as I am competency of deployment. When firefighters drill and practice regularly with any piece of equipment they become faster at employing that equipment safely, effectively and efficiently.


What don't fire departments know about their extrication equipment that they should know?

Avsec: There is a lack of familiarity when it comes to all of the equipment carried aboard fire apparatus. It's not just extrication equipment, it's also air-monitoring equipment, radios, CAFS, biomedical equipment, etc.

The body of knowledge for fire and EMS personnel is ever increasing and so too is the number of tools in their toolbox. Leaders cannot expect top performance from their people with extrication without regular practice in using their equipment.

Eastman: The most common mistake we see is the neglect of the rescue tools for service. We recommend that rescue personnel keep their equipment serviced at least once a year.

Simple daily checks should always be performed. Crews check SCBA daily, rescue tools should fall right in there with other high-priority equipment checks. Additionally, proper storage of the tools is important. Proper mounting brackets not only extend the life of the tools but make deployment much easier and safer. 

Sheaffer: As always, training is the key. We have found in the last year while working with fire departments, NASCAR and speedways that understanding when a tool gets its power, where it is most powerful, and how long it can take to get power are all things we can help operators understand better no matter what brand tool is being used.


What's the best extrication equipment choices for financially constrained fire departments?

Sheaffer: This is a tough question because a quick answer may be to buy used, but the department will most likely buy something that is obsolete for today's vehicles.

If I were buying a system with limited funds, I would buy the basics but a current model cutter and spreader, which will handle a large percentage of extrications. Add the accessories such as rams, chains, etc., for another budget year.

Asvec: Any department should first look at what their extrication needs are; they should look at their past history with vehicle extrications in terms of numbers, vehicle types and models, and what extrication tasks were needed.

Then look at what extrication equipment is around them — in neighboring departments — that could be available through mutual aid or automatic response. Once a department's leaders had done that, they will be in a better position to match their available funding to the equipment they really need.

Eastman: First, you can go with a combination cutter/spreader tool. The drawbacks are that typically the combination tool has much less capability than a cutter or spreader by itself.

What this translates to is your personnel must be more highly trained in extrication. This alone can negate the entire savings in cost.

Second, you could buy an initial set of equipment with a much lower capability in order to get your department up and running, then later add a cutter that has the ability to cut Boron and or UHSS steels.

This is a much more cost effective way, as these cutters will receive much less wear and tear saving the department money down the road.

Third, there are manufacturers that give a trade-in allowance for older equipment. This can give you a great savings on equipment and possibly allow you to get that bigger cutter so you have confidence when rolling up to a heavy rescue. Finally, hire a good grant writer; they are worth their weight in gold.


What is the biggest challenge facing manufacturers now?

Eastman: Keeping rescue personnel up to speed on the ever-changing techniques and training needed to operate rescue tools. Any tool is only as good as the person using it, so the best rescue tool in the world isn't anything without a fully capable person behind it.

With the advent of the World Wide Web and social media, information gets around a whole lot easier — but sometimes that can be a bad thing. We really strive every day to keep ourselves up on the latest in training so that we can in turn provide safe, real world techniques to rescue personnel around the world.

Sheaffer: Building quality tools at an affordable price.

Asvec: For the manufacturers the challenges pretty much stay the same: how do they make the equipment lighter, more powerful and applicable to the extrication challenges presented by ever-changing vehicle technologies and construction.

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