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Tougher steel in car construction slows extrications

Methods and tools that worked in the past sometimes fail in the present

Editor’s note: Vehicle extrication has always been a specialized skill that demands a great deal of training and practice, in addition to having the right tools for the job. While they look fairly similar on the outside, vehicles have changed a lot over the past decade and many additional changes can be expected in the future, especially as hybrid, electric, and eventually hydrogen-powered vehicles become more prevalent on our streets and highways.

Ongoing vehicle familiarization is essential, as well as keeping up with contemporary extrication tools and techniques by reading, watching videos, and practice, practice, practice.

Chief Adam K. Thiel, FireRescue1 Editorial Advisor

By James Hash

WASHINGTON, D.C. — They are sometimes referred to as the Jaws of Life. In decades of use they have helped first responders cut thousands of car crash victims from the jaws of death.

“It’s an invaluable tool that we couldn’t do without,” says Buster Cantor with DC Fire and EMS’ Rescue 3.

These powerful cutting tools can quickly slice apart a mangled car, freeing trapped victims.

“Up until the last couple of years it’s been fairly easy,” says Tim Clark with DC Fire and EMS’ Rescue Squad 3.

But more and more often these tools are biting off more than they can chew and it’s costing rescuers precious time.

“What used to take maybe ten or fifteen minutes or less to get a person out, is now taking maybe twice as long, maybe three times as long ,” says DC Fire and EMS spokesperson Pete Piringer.

The reason is tougher steels for the Jaws to cut through.

It all goes back to the gas pump, specifically the federal government’s requirement that new cars use less of it. One way of doing that is to build vehicles that are smaller and lighter. But smaller, lighter cars don’t protect occupants as well in crashes unless they are designed to be very, very strong. And that’s exactly what auto companies are doing by using tougher steels.

“It’s almost like they are in a steel reinforced cage, similar to what you see in a race car,” says Clark.

In a training video, produced by State Farm Insurance, rescue crews are taught about the challenges of cutting through newer cars constructed of high strength steel. Methods and tools that worked in the past sometimes fail.

“We are being shut down by the strength of these alloy steels,” says a first responder in the State Farm training video.

New rescue tools, capable of cutting the new high strength steel, are now available. However, with most fire departments on tight budgets, it could take years to replace old equipment.

Piringer tells 9NEWS NOW the units that can cut through the new steel, along with all the additional equipment that comes with them, can cost upwards of $80,000.

Fairfax says the money isn’t there right now to replace their 80-units. So they are training rescuers how to cut into cars to avoid the tougher steel. A spokesperson says this is working 90 percent of the time for them.

Montgomery County says they are mostly upgraded; however, they have two to three more to go.

DC Fire and EMS is in the process of replacing one of their three units.

“We have the experience, and we have a lot of training that we can do on it, but just getting the tools themselves would be the first objective,” says Canter.

Until then, rescue departments will continue to rely on their most important assets, experienced rescuers.

Republished with permission from WUSA9.