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Fire Rescue Tools: The "Jaws of Life"

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A description of "the Jaws of Life" and general uses for hydraulic rescue tools.

Ever since 9/11, firefighters have come to be more noticed in the public eye. In this series of articles, I will explain some of the common tools and techniques that we use every day to help keep people safe.

The Hydraulic Rescue Tool


The hydraulic rescue tool (frequently called "The Jaws of Life") was invented in 1972 by Hurst Performance. The tool was originally designed to rescue race car drivers from crashed cars, but was quickly adopted by rescue teams nationwide. Previously, fire departments were required to use a circular saw (like the K-12 rescue saw) to perform cutting operations, and the halligan bar for any prying involved with vehicle extrication. The invention of a powered device to aid in extrication has likely saved the lives of many people, due to the time-sensitive nature of reaching a trauma patient who is entrapped in a car.


There are three main functioned performed by hydraulic rescue tools. First is the spreader type of tool. This consists of a pair of triangular jaws that taper to a narrow tip. When the tool is activated, the jaws move apart with an incredible amount of force and can be used to pry stuck doors off of cars, or to access the hood or trunk areas. Next is the cutting tool. There are a pair of scythe shaped blades that come together like a gigantic pair of scissors. This can be used to cut the posts on car roofs to allow rescuers access to the patient. Third there is the "ram." The general idea is that the ram is used to "push the car back into shape." Finally, there is the combination cutter-spreader. For smaller departments like mine that don't do much vehicular extrication, this is an ideal solution because it takes up less room on the truck and can do the job of both.


The hydraulic rescue tools are used nearly exclusively for patient extrication and not directly for firefighting. That being said, they can make quick work of a crashed car, allowing quicker access to the patient for paramedics and saving lives. Instead of focusing on all possible uses, I'll describe the most common uses for each of the types of tool.

-Spreaders. Spreaders are used to force pieces of the vehicle or machienery apart to allow for access to the patient. One instance would be in any situation where someone is stuck, perhaps by machinery, or a child sticking his hand between the bars of a jungle gym on the playground. The spreader tool could be inserted in the gap and spread it apart far enough that the trapped person could be safely removed. With cars, doors that are jammed shut by an accident can be "popped off" using the spreader tool. We can also use this tool to gain access to the engine block or to pry up the hood, so that the battery can be disconnected making the car safer for rescuers to work with.

-Cutters. The cutting tools are used to cut away pieces of the vehicle that are preventing the extrication of the patient. The primary use for these is to remove the hood to make it easier to get the patient onto a backboard and handed off to medical care. There are many situations where a gigantic pair of scissors is useful and it would be impossible to list them all.

-Hydraulic Ram. The hydraulic ram is used to push damaged parts of the vehicle off of the patient. In front end collisions, the dash of the car can crush down on the patient's legs, making it impossible for him to get out. After relief cuts are made, the ram can be used to push the dash back up and off of the patient, allowing him to be removed from the car. Also, in a severe side collision, the door can be pushed in far enough to pin the patient. In this situation, it is often better to try to push the door back out before it is removed with the spreader tool. This prevents the spreader from further deforming the door in a way that might harm the patient.


About This Article

Steve Smith

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