There were 10.4 million vehicle collisions in 2006, according to the National Safety Council. The U.S. National Highway Safety Traffic Administration reported that 38,600 of those collisions involved fatalities, and another 1,746,000 resulted in non-fatal injuries. The fire and rescue response likely included extrication efforts on thousands of these calls. In contrast, fire departments responded to 524,000 structure fires during the same period. Clearly, the scale has tipped when it comes to a fire department’s response model.
The fire and rescue service is the preeminent agency for vehicle extrication in most of America. Extrication tools and equipment can be found on all types of apparatus, and countless hours are spent on training with this equipment. All of the systems operate at high pressures and use a combination of power and speed to rapidly dismember vehicle components. Despite this power, we often fail to appreciate how easily something can go wrong. These tools are ruggedly constructed and put through arduous paces, but they aren’t indestructible. In some cases, the weakest link is a seemingly innocuous piece.
In Near-Miss Report No. 07-1136, a reporter shows us the importance of equipment maintenance–the very first step in ensuring safe equipment operations.
“Firefighter 1 was the first to use the extrication tool that evening. Lt. 2, Lt. 3 and I were assisting him. In his first move, the B-post up near the roof of the vehicle was cut. After that he was directed to remove the driver-side front door. He started by separating the top hinge first and then the lower hinge. Due to the impact damage, he also used the extrication tool to make some cuts and gain access to the interior.
“Lt. 3 was the second to use the tool. Once the two front hinges were complete, Lt. 3 used the tool to separate the door latch mechanism at the B-post. At this time the front driver-side door removal was complete, so we backed out for the police to take pictures. I was the last to use the extrication tool.
“Once the police were done with pictures, the driver-side rear door was to be removed to extricate the victim. The door opened with minimal effort. I then used the extrication tool for the upper hinge. The extrication tool was rested on top of the upper hinge and opened. This separated the top of the upper hinge but not the bottom. The extrication tool was then closed and placed underneath the upper hinge in an effort to separate it.
“While opening the spreaders at this location, the tip on the right side of the tool broke off. When the tip broke it went airborne and hit the side of my helmet and continued. I’m not sure where it landed or who found it. At that point, the tool was taken out of service and the alternate extrication tool was used. Firefighter Z later told me that it had almost hit him, too.”
“After careful review of the incident that included representatives from the manufacturer, we learned that a shear bolt that stabilizes the tip to the tool might have been slightly loose. We were able to determine how loose based on the portion of the bolt that was still in the tool. We never imagined that this small bolt played such an important role. The bolt does not bear any force; it simply holds the tip steady, preventing twisting. We now regularly check that this bolt is secure and use Loctite to ensure tightness.”
All tool manufacturers have a comprehensive maintenance program that’s been developed to ensure a long service life for their products. Once the tools are mounted on the apparatus, maintenance often becomes a second- or even third-tier consideration. But a tool’s rugged construction and performance underscore the need to ensure proper maintenance is performed. The key to ensuring long life and reliable performance is to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for the three levels of tool maintenance: in-station, distributor performed and factory level.
- Locate a copy of the manufacturer’s manual for the extrication tools used by your department.
- Contact your local distributor and arrange for a refresher on the in-station maintenance that should be performed on your tools.
- Set up a regimented schedule to ensure periodic in-station inspections and maintenance. Document all maintenance and preserve records for the life of the tool.
- Drill frequently on the use of tools. Include a drill segment on return-to-service inspection and maintenance procedures.
- Plan for tool replacement. Tool upgrades are not just for looks. Technology changes and everything has a life expectancy. Years of high pressure use and being folded, rolled and pinched in compartments contribute to a shortened lifespan.
- Reinforce the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) to be used any time the tools are powered up, pressures are applied and during equipment inspections. Minimum PPE should include gloves, eye protection and hearing protection. In addition to eye protection, strongly consider wearing a helmet with faceshield when tools are pressurized.
- Daily apparatus checks should include a visual inspection of all nuts and bolts. Look for cracks, broken welds, exposed gaskets, gouged metal or other signs of weakening.
- Place a tool out of service if there’s any doubt about its performance. Troubleshoot to a point, but recognize your limitations. Unless you’ve been factory-trained and certified, leave repairs to the experts.
- One sure way to prevent tool failure is to know the tool’s operating capacities and limitations. Never exceed the manufacturer’s recommendations for operating the tool. If the tool stops operating, don’t keep pressure on the tool’s operating handle. Release pressure and re-position the tool.
- Don’ torque or twist the tool to gain additional leverage. Let the tool do the work.
For many fire and rescue departments, vehicle extrications are considered just another “routine” incident. But when you consider the cutting and spreading force the tools develop, it’s easy to see that they are engineering marvels–and powerful ones. New technology is making housings lighter and cutting tips stronger. The space-age materials bring a sense of indestructibility to the tools. However, like all mechanical objects, extrication tools need frequent attention, inspection and maintenance to ensure they will perform flawlessly and safely each and every time they are pulled from the compartment.
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