Updating Your Extrication Techniques for 2017

(This is part one of a two-part series.)

For many years I have preached that responders need to learn how to use many types of tools — including hand tools — to perform a given task or technique. When one tool or method is taking too long or is not effectively working as planned, it’s time to access the need to change out the tool and/or use an alternative technique.


I am going to address some rescue tool concerns from responders, and how to cope with them to efficiently mitigate a vehicle rescue. All of which can be done with tools you have in inventory with the update of current extrication techniques.

Today’s Extrication Challenges

Automakers have improved the structural integrity of the occupant cabin or safety cage with lighter weight and higher strength metals to improve occupant safety and reduce fuel consumption. Since the introduction of “crumple zones” that slow the crash event and absorb crash energy before it gets to the occupant, the front and rear end subassemblies by design have pre-engineering areas that will readily crumble or deform during a severe crash.

These collision deformities help slow the crash event as it relates to the occupant: the greater the elapsed time to stop the event, the less affect it has on the occupant. The occupant cabin or safety cage over the last decade and before, have been reinforced with stronger, harder steels, stronger gussets at joint unions to help prevent structural failure, which relates directly to collision intrusion into the safety cage. Typically OEMs built to pass the offset frontal and side impact conducted by Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests.


New Vehicle Construction Versus Extrication

How does more crash worthy vehicles relate to responders providing extrication? It’s simple, the structural components made with exotic metals are harder than most steels found in rescue tool cutting blades; especially those not specifically engineered for these type steels. Pillars made with harder steels such as boron steel are commonly used by the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) in modern vehicle construction. Some OEMs use pillar construction having an interior harden tubular steel wrapped by multiple layers of milder steel layers. Cutting the first few layers of steel are not an issue until they are confronted with the internal boron rod or tube. Then the cutting tool can be challenged by harder steel, which it was designed to cut and can lead to tool blade failure.

Cutting Steel Structural Vehicle Members

Rescue tool cutting blades can typically cut through mild steel in a similar manor as paper being cut with scissors. However, when there is a built up layer of materials such as in a pillar or tubular material the cutters have a tendency to roll and side load the blades. The tool blades want to travel with the least resistance and in doing so can twist. When this happens the force implied is not on the cutting edge as designed, but between the faceplates of the blades. This can cause warping, separation and/or fracturing of the blades. When these events happen the blades need to be replaced. There is no fixing them. Often blades will chip, and depending on the depth of the chip, they may be able to be filed. If the chips are too deep the efficiency of the blade can drastically be reduced. Also, small particles of steel can lodge between the blades at the center bolt; as a result of loose blades, the knurling (scouring) created will also diminish the tools efficiency. This is why blades are taken apart annually, cleaned, inspected, coated with a lubricating blade paste, reinstalled and torqued according to recommended specifications.

The term cutting does not apply to boron steel or harden metals, the cutters actually compress harden metals to the point that the metal fractures. This can be noted as the buildup and sudden release of kinetic energy created when boron fractures, often with a noticeable loud bang. When Volvo first came out with boron side impact members, the OEM donated a boron B-pillar for our testing. During our test of the material, a large cutter couldn’t puncture and danced along the pillar twisting rapidly. Finally after repeated tries, at a bend in the pillar the cutter was able to achieve a purchase where it built up pressure to the point that a catastrophically fracture of the boron occurred. The resulting event sent a two-inch piece of material traveling 25 feet hitting the late Dwight Clark — Extrication.Com instructor and Harvey Grant Recipient — in the leg who was witnessing and video taping the action. No injuries resulted due to distance, but should also be noted that cutting boron can be problematic and hard shield protection should be considered to protect patients and all responders in the Hot Zone should don proper PPE.

There needs to be a happy medium between being efficient and fast. When first training I prefer a slower tool until the responder becomes comfortable. At that point they then can move on to a faster tool. Responders need to learn to control rate of speed through the deadman switch and recognize when the tool’s limitations have been met. Another speed consideration comes when cutting the unknown, as mentioned when a cutter meets resistance it wants to react, and sometimes due to speed the responder cannot react quick enough and the blade can be damaged. Having the fastest tool system isn’t always best, having a tool with slightly less speed isn’t going to make a determination of life and death, the time difference is not that significant.

Today’s responders want rescue tools that can overcome the challenges of the modern automobile construction having heavily reinforced joint unions found in front end aprons, rails, and structural members such as pillars having boron steel.

The tool industry is at a point that the focus is directed to develop faster, stronger more powerful cutting tools to keep pace with responder’s outcry in the field. Ask a responder who does extrication what they would like to see in tool improvement and overwhelmingly the response will be: Faster tools, lighter weight, and cutters having the ability to cut/fracture metals such as Boron steel.

Faster tools and cutting exotic metals can be accomplished, but at a price. The trade off for faster tools that will overcome the challenge of exotic metals means heavier tools, not lighter. The demographics of our industry have changed drastically over the past decades with smaller framed responders increasingly joining the ranks.

Powerful, but not over powered, reasonably fast, compact lighter weight tools would seem to be the path of direction that would be most versatile. These features may be within our reach as the new ALL electric tools, are on the horizon. The all electric, not “battery over electric” tools, have that power and will hopefully be available within the next year if not sooner. The new electric tools, besides power, will also have longer run time of three to four hours of operation.

Creating the Happy Medium Between Cutting Edge Tools and The Responder

Without a doubt, modern rescue tools are far better than when I became a firefighter in 1978, as told by many peers such as Harvey Grant, Dwight Clark and others say extrication was done with simple hand tools and tools designed for auto body work such as a Port-A-Power. Victims often endured long extrications where the responders were without formal extrication training that’s mandated today. Responders literally beat the vehicles with hand tools or enlisted the use of a waiting wrecker for their winch to free an entrapment.

With the introduction of the modern rescue tool in the 70s, have we forgotten to instruct responders to “think outside the box” and utilize hand and power tools to efficiently supplement the heavy hydraulic tools to expedite vehicle rescue?

As responders we need to compromise and adjust our techniques when challenges present themselves and not be reliant on a tool company to provide all the answers. As the OEMs increase strength in the occupant cage do you want tools that take two responders to operate, or adjust our techniques to overcome some of the responder issues?

We shouldn’t base our tool opinions solely on “tasks” for a particular technique that was developed prior to the existence of exotic metals and/or structurally stronger members. Let’s think about adjusting our techniques and working with the tool manufacturers together not having to rely on the rescue tool manufacturers solely to come up with the solutions. We also need to work more closely with the OEMs to learn about safety features and new vehicle construction as their introduced, and adapt to the new trends with techniques that make best use of the tools we currently have in inventory.

Updating Older Extrication Techniques

Many responders train to perform techniques based on established steps for training developed in the 80s when the modern rescue was at its infancy. One of the hardest tasks as an instructor is to over come the “resistance to change.” Similar to having a favorite make car, some people wouldn’t accept another make vehicle no matter if it was free, or simply stated, “if it isn’t broke don’t try to fix it.” As an instructor it’s part of our job to over come the resistance to change and, impart a desire where the responder feels the need to changes that can benefit them and/or the patient they are training to save.

Due to the stronger structural members of the modern vehicle there is less intrusion, which directly relates to the extrication tasks required. Therefore, there may be less need to cut a structural member as in the past. Perhaps bypassing a step and performing a different task in its place would be beneficial to safely and efficiently mitigate the rescue. Perhaps if the first attempt at cutting a B-pillar fails, try repositioning the tool higher or lower, or simply cut the pillar away from the side rails. There is always more than one way to accomplish a task. You may not use a particular method today, but one day you may need that task that has been lingering in the back of your mind waiting for the crash of the future.

Whenever possible I try to eliminate unnecessarily tasks not required and utilize those that are. When confronted with material that will not readily cut with your tool, the operator should assess the situation by asking questions such as:

  • Can the tool be reposition higher/lower or to either side to avoid harden metal or heavy reinforcement structural members?
  • Does this particular structural member need to be cut, or can the step be bypassed?
  • Is there an alternative structural member that can be cut such as a side roof rail instead, to allow a pillar to be displaced or totally removed?
  • Is there a better tool for the job, such as a reciprocating saw with a blade that is suitable for exotic metals?

Progressive responders will constantly be thinking ahead, accessing and re-accessing, to formulate a backup plan to cope with the situation at hand.

Typically this is the function of the rescue team leader, since most operators will be focused on their task and can lose any concept of time. Operators also need to not let the crash deformity bog the rescue down. This can be demonstrated when door removal becomes more intense than typically experienced and the responder doesn’t want the vehicle get the best of them.

Instead of focusing on what isn’t working, think about using another task or swapping out for a tool that is better suited for the task. If in the opinion of the team leader the task is taking to long, they should ask the operators how much longer? At that point assess their response and adjust the rescue plan as required to efficiently expedite the rescue. Like the incident commander, operators should have a rescue plan and a backup to that plan. Once on scene the IC explains the action plan and the rescue team leader or senior operator then formulates the rescue plan and should develop a secondary or backup plan for worst-case scenario.

Adjusting Extrication Techniques

Adjusting current techniques instead of purchasing the biggest baddest tool on the market may be one course of action to address responder’s concerns, especially when budget constraints will not allow for new tool procurement.

To adjust to modern challenges Extrication.Com has redeveloped its Modified Dash Roll (MDR) technique developed in the late 80s — originally to avoid Side Impact Protection Systems (SIP/SIPS) airbags along the roof rails. Using the same concepts of the MDR, our latest version can be used by smaller tools such as a combination tool.

In part two of this two part series, the Extrication.Com Modified Dash Lift (MDL)will be introduced with step by step instructions. The MDL can be performed with limited reach spreading tools such as a combination tool.

Ron Shaw, Lieutenant (Retired) Plymouth MA Fire Department with over 29 years of service, associate member of the St. Thomas Rescue, Inc., St. Thomas USVI, State and National Fire Service Instructor, vehicle safety/rescue author and owner/lead instructor for Extrication.Com. Photo Courtesy of Solutia, Inc. (Eastman Chemical Company).

Contact Us

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.