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How to buy rescue equipment

By Ron Shaw

There’s a number of rescue equipment systems and extrication tools, cutters and spreaders available to fire departments. Deciding which tools and systems will best serve your agency is based on a number of factors.

Each heavy rescue tool system available has its own unique benefits and no one tool is best for every situation. Options include:

• Electric (battery-powered electric motor system)
• Electric-hydraulic (battery-powered hydraulic system)
• Hydraulic System
• Manual-operated hydraulic hand pump
• Electric hard wire motor driven hydraulic pump
• Internal combustion engine driven
• Power Take Off (PTO) driven hydraulic pump

1) Each of these systems may have an advantage over the other in a given situation. For example, a crash on a mountainside that requires responders to backpack the equipment is not feasible for a PTO system as its hose lines would not be extended beyond 100 feet. Conversely, if the crash was in a city, having a unit with a PTO power unit with 100 foot reels and pre-attached tools that can be put into immediate operation is desirable. For an agency that has both off road and urban crashes, having a lightweight portable power unit and combination tool may be the best system for them.

2) Economics also plays an important part; if your department has an unlimited budget, dedicated extrication tools will outperform a combination tool in both cutting and spreading/pulling forces. For a smaller community with limited funds, choosing tools that serve a dual role such as a combination tool would be an option to consider. For example, having a spreader with 42-inch arms is more costly than standard (28-32 inch) length arms. However, having such at tool would be an overall saving when contemplating purchasing a large dedicated spreader, and ram (small, medium and large) set. If your apparatus has limited cabinet space, a more compact tool may be more desirable.

3) A proactive department will form a committee that will include members of the organization who will actually be using the tools. In my opinion, whenever possible, personnel that will be using the tools should be consulted, and have a direct say during the equipment selection process. In situations when the end user is not consulted during the selection process, there a greater chance for personnel to be to be disgruntled.

4) Buyers are often persuaded by dealer sales representatives. While their suggestions may be well intended, they may not know your department’s specific needs or requirements. This is something the end user will. And the tool choice may not best serve your department needs when outside opinions are accepted without any other considerations being made.

There are several key questions that your committee should ask tool sales representatives:

1) Warranty
• Conditions of coverage
• One year
• Lifetime

2) Service recommendations
• Weekly operator inspection recommendations
• Monthly operator inspection recommendations
• Yearly vendor inspection and service requirements

3) Vendor commitment
• Loaner tools
• Technician repair response time

4) Compatibility
Will you be able to add on tools utilizing the existing system regardless of make and operating pressure (5,000-10,000 PSI) for old and new tool systems?

5) What are the key tasks and functions the tools provide?

6) Are the tools compatible for modern vehicle construction and be able to cut exotic metals such as boron steel used in many late model vehicles?

7) Are your choice of tools ergonomically designed (weight optimization) for user comfort and balance?

Choosing the right tools
It is important to choose the right tools and system(s) based on, but not limited to the following influences:
• Generic compatibility with existing system. Purpose of heavy rescue tools (extrication on/off road and/or breaching)
• Departments having a mixture of responder physical builds need to consider physical body structure as one of the tool choice influences for at least some of your inventory
• Type rescues

It should be pointed out that no agency can efficiently perform extrication solely with heavy rescue tools alone.

Most agencies don’t like to switch between rescue tools unless there is total compatibility with existing and new tools, or the total system (power unit and rescue tools) has served its useful purpose and money would better be spent in replacement than repairs.

Having a rescue tool system that is generic allows your current inventory of tools to be replaced gradually so not to tax your departments tool replacement budget. By adding on to the existing system, your department can gradually replace out older obsolete tools as required; this would be a more cost efficient method of tool procurement/replacement.

At this time, there is only one company (ResQTec) that can offer total compatibility between any system regardless of operating pressure. As time goes on, other manufacturers may give way to the concept of generic compatibility.

It should be noted that there are many manual and power tools that are also required for rescue work. Consideration for hand/power tools should be addressed prior to purchasing the heavy hydraulics. One of the least used tools, yet most versatile for extrication, is a quality reciprocating saw. Often, this single tool with the proper blade can outperform a dedicated heavy rescue tool. When used together with heavy rescue tools, they will efficiently expedite a modern vehicle rescue.

Having the right power tools such as a quality reciprocating saw may have an influence on your heavy rescue tool purchase. If you have a saw that can do the same job as a dedicated cutter, can you then channel funds for another type tool that you may need more due to budget constraints?

For a small agency or one that works off a mobile platform for rescue work, the following tool setup would be ideal:
• One internal combustion engine “mini” power unit capable of powering all selected tools, having flat face connectors and provide power to two tools.
• Two 30' hydraulic hose lines (each identified by separate color coding), having flat face connectors.
• One combination tool (spreader/cutter) with removable tips and flat face connectors.


• Battery-powered power unit (back pack) having a minimum of 20-minutes of operation with two spare batteries and charging system. Connectors are an option based on needs and limitations of your agency.
• One combination tool (spreader/cutter) with removable tips and flat face connectors. Military units may want the tool with fixed lines instead of quick disconnect couplers.

For a small to medium size township, the following are my minimum recommendations for heavy rescue tools:
• One mini power unit capable of powering all selected tools, having flat face connectors and provide power to two tools.
• Two 30' hydraulic hose lines (each identified by separate color coding), having flat face connectors.
• Large dedicated spreader, with flat face connectors.
• Large dedicated cutter (capable of cutting boron steel structural components), with flat face connectors.
• Medium ram with flat face connectors.
• 1.5 gallons of hydraulic fluid, or recommended quantity.

For departments with the resources, a combination tool (capable of cutting exotic metals, such as boron steel) is highly suggested. Combination tools are well suited for a crash that only needs a door displacement or simple cuts to a structural member.

They provide spreading, crushing and cutting functions; those with removable tips can increase the cutting capabilities by providing full cuts without the tips impeding the cut. Combination tools also cause less fatigue to the user, especially if they don’t have the upper body strength to support a large dedicated tool.

Determining type system
Electric Heavy Rescue Tool System: This is a system that is unique to one tool manufacturer, PowerHawk. This system can be backpacked into remote areas and has a desirable rotating head feature that allows the operator to angle the cutting/spread tool attachments when in a confined space or awkward position.

Unlike other tool systems, the power unit allows for the user to swap out between spreader arms, dedicated cutters or combination cutter-spreaders. Another desirable feature is the ability to use the 12V battery pack with 18V Milwaukee cordless tools for extended use. This feature was developed in partnership between PowerHawk and Milwaukee.

The limitations are similar to that of a combination tool. (Note: When comparing systems, do so with a combination tool.)

Electric-hydraulic System: Currently there are three electric-hydraulic heavy rescue tool systems available. One utilizes a DeWalt NiMH battery pack, the other two use a lead acid battery. These systems are well adapted to situations that would require backpacking or operating off a mobile platform such as an ATV or helicopter. Each system has their limitations and benefits.

Limitations: The first type of system is only offered as either dedicated cutters or combination cutter-spreaders with limited spread/cutting opening. The second type can utilize any of its company’s high pressure hydraulic tools, except a large ram due to fluid replacement issues. The third manufacturer’s system can use its entire low pressure tool line, or any other manufacturer’s low pressure tools utilizing phosphate or mineral type hydraulic fluids.

Hydraulic System: The heavy rescue hydraulic system was originally developed in partnership between Hurst and ResQTec in the 70s. Prior to this, responders were limited to hand tools and hand-operated hydraulic tools (such as Porta Power) developed for the auto body repair industry.

Manual Operated Hydraulic System: There are three types of manually operated hydraulic pumps.
• Integral hand operated pump
• Auxiliary/external operated hand pump
• Auxiliary/external operated foot pump

There are integrated hydraulic pumps within some rescue tools; for the most part these are limited to combination tools. For military and other special operation units having weight and equipment limitations for rescue missions, this system is often used.

These are compact, quiet, and lightweight compared to other hydraulic systems. External hydraulic pumps will work with compatible tools, and are not limited to one tool as with the integral combination tools.

Electric Motor-Driven Hydraulic Pump System: In the field, electric pumps require a generator to provide power to the electric motor. These units are ideal for a training facility as they are very quiet. They can be located within a building and produce no byproducts of combustion. This is very desirable for an instructional setting where instructors typically would have to talk over an IC engine.

Internal Combustion Engine Driven Hydraulic Pump System: The major advantage of this type of system over others is portability. The new generation of compact pumps are lightweight, can run two tools off the same system, and can provide power to any tool within a model line. The two major disadvantages to this system would be noise and byproducts of combustion; not practical for an inside lab/classroom.

PTO Driven Hydraulic Pump System: The PTO version is connected to your truck’s transmission and some are capable of operating up to eight rescue tools simultaneously. If one of your considerations is portability, the PTO is not an option.

  • Any other suggestions? Anything we missed in the list above? Leave a comment below or e-mail with your feedback.

Ron Shaw was a career fire service lieutenant with more than 29 years of service, and is the founder and lead instructor for The organization is dedicated to the specialty field of motor vehicle extrication, providing emergency responders with the latest training and safety information necessary to safely mitigate a motor vehicle rescue. It has taught vehicle extrication at the basic, intermediate and advanced training skills to emergency responders from four continents and in the United States coast to coast and border to border. For more details, e-mail