How the Jaws of Life became a tool to snatch you from the jaws of death

The Jaws of Life were first created in 1961 and are now an indispensable tool for many fire departments.


Alongside fire trucks and hoses, Jaws of Life are one of the most recognizable tools at a firefighter’s disposal. Yet, many people don’t know about the rich history of the tool and a multitude of uses. 

Invention of the Jaws of Life

Hydraulic rescue tools were first patented in 1961 by George Hurst after he witnessed rescue crews take over an hour to extricate stock car drivers from crashed cars. Before the Hurst tools were in use, rescuers typically used circular saws to cut open car frames. This had several drawbacks:

Jaws of Life have the ability to remove a car roof in about two minutes
Jaws of Life have the ability to remove a car roof in about two minutes (Photo/Hurst Jaws of Life)
  • Traditional saws can create sparks, increasing the chances for fire and explosion.
  • They take a long time to create a safe opening to extricate a victim, increasing injury probability.
  • They’re extremely loud, which can add undue stress to accident victims. 

The Hurst hydraulic tools were praised because they were able to quickly extricate accident victims and snatch them from the “jaws of death.” This led to the nickname "Jaws of Life," which was then registered as a trademark by Hurst. While Hurst tools are the only hydraulic tools officially named Jaws of Life, the term is colloquially used to describe many brands of hydraulic rescue tools.

How the Jaws of Life Work

The Jaws of Life tool uses a piston system, not dissimilar from a car engine. A gasoline or electrical power source pushes hydraulic fluid into the first piston, which then drives down the second piston and applies immense pressure into the tool quickly. Instead of an hour or more extricating a victim, the Jaws of Life can remove a car roof in roughly two minutes.

Most hydraulic equipment uses some sort of incompressible fluid, or fluid at its maximum density to help create optimal force. Oil can be used in many types of hydraulic equipment, but because oil is extremely flammable, the Jaws of Life typically use phosphate ester fluid, which is both non-flammable and does not conduct electricity.

Types of Jaws of Life

The Jaws of Life has four main types of hydraulic rescue tools: spreaders, cutters, rams and combination tools. Each serves a vital function in the extrication process.

Spreaders: Hydraulic spreaders are primarily used for compressed car frames and other damaged and collapsing structures. Like a pair of reversed scissors, spreaders start in a closed position and apply outward force, moving apart steel and fiberglass frames with ease, giving victims the space to be removed from a hazard.

Cutters: A more efficient version of the old-school circular saws and the opposite of spreaders, cutters operate like scissors on steroids. Using immense hydraulic pressure, they cut through metals to remove damaged and dangerous obstructions, allowing openings for firefighters to extricate victims.

Rams: While creating openings are important, there are times when a firefighter needs to dislodge parts of wreckage, like a steering column or a dashboard. That’s where rams come in, where a sturdy metal alloy rod is pressed forward to punch or ram apart sections of an accident that may be pinning a victim down and preventing their extrication.

Combination Tools: Instead of carrying multiple tools around, combination tools allow firefighters to use one device to both cut and spread damaged areas and extricate victims. A combination tool can shave precious seconds off a rescue, lessening the chance of harm or stress to a victim.

PPE for Jaws of Life Extrication

Unlike standard fire gear, when performing an extrication, firefighters need PPE. The goal of extrication suits is to allow firefighters optimal mobility and flexibility to react as situations change. However, they also have to keep safety top of mind. Good extrication suits have:

  • Lightweight material to increase flexibility
  • Reflective areas to alert oncoming traffic and keep firefighters safe
  • Fire-resistant in case situations become perilous
  • Reinforced elbows and knees to increase padding when having to crawl and maneuver around an accident scene to extricate victims

Firefighters also need solid extrication gloves. Ideally, these are cut resistant to protect firefighters from protruding glass and metal, but also provide enough tactile feedback to allow them to recognize what they are touching when vision is impaired from low light, obstructions, smoke or rain.

The Jaws of Life are an important tool in every fire department's arsenal. Using hydraulic technology, they can quickly, efficiently and safely extricate victims trapped in wrecked cars. Coming a long way from the days of power tools being used on race car tracks, the Jaws of Life have saved countless lives as they help snatch victims from the “jaws of death.”

[Next: How to buy extrication tools (eBook)]

This article, originally published in 2017, has been updated.

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