The Jaws of Life

Inside the controlled chaos of traffic collisions

By Jens Nielsen

Most of us have heard of the Jaws of Life. The term refers to a brand of hydraulic rescue tools used by firefighters and other emergency rescue personnel. They include hydraulic cutters, spreaders and rams. Airbags are not considered hydraulic rescue tools but are often used in conjunction with these tools.

The cutters act like giant powerful shears that are used to cut through metal and other strong materials. The powerful spreaders are used to pry open doors, the rams act as powerful presses or jacks and both can be used to move hazards or obstructions out of the way. Sometimes the tools are combined into one. These tools are much safer to use than saws or other tools that may cause sparks around potential oil and gas spills. The tools are usually powered by portable generators or auxiliary power units.

George Hurst is credited with inventing the first hydraulic rescue tools in the early 1960s to rescue race car drivers after crashes. His company today is called Hurst Jaws of Life. The term Jaws of Life, however, was coined by Mike Brick who started the Phoenix Rescue Equipment Company. It alludes to snatching people from the jaws of death. Today there are several different companies providing these tools including the Holmatro tools used here in the Yukon.

Simply having these tools available is just the beginning.

Firstly, every firefighter is trained in the use of the tools. This includes all volunteer firefighters. An immense amount of training and preparation goes into the safe use of these tools. Not only must a firefighter be comfortable using every tool, they must be able to do so in full gear that, with helmet and oxygen tanks, can weigh well over 45 kilograms. That’s three times the weight most of us would normally carry for a weeklong hike. Once the gear gets wet it weights even more. And then it acts like a snowsuit, but worn even on very hot summer days. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Once firefighters arrive at the scene of an accident, the incident commander must size up the situation and develop a strategy as quickly as possible. Every situation is different and may never have been encountered before. They must stabilize the environment, the vehicle, and patients while trying to ensure safety for everyone. Triage (ensuring the most serious injuries are treated first) is performed.

Patient care is everything.

While things at the scene may look chaotic, it’s actually all very structured. The placement of trucks, equipment, and other apparatus is all by design to maximize the safety and control of the situation. Trucks are parked at angles to fend off any incoming traffic that may breach the perimeter and endanger the firefighters or patients. Equipment and apparatus is all set up where it is needed. Police officers may also be on the scene helping.

Only after the vehicle and other hazards are stabilized does the team begin extrication of the patients, potentially using the Jaws of Life. Disconnecting all electrical power to the vehicle and neutralizing fuel leaks with foam is all part of this. It’s interesting to note that first responders don’t pul the patient from the vehicle but instead remove the wreckage from around the patient until it’s safe to move them. They do this usually with paramedics directly involved. The goal is to work as quickly as possible without rushing.

Regardless of how much action is going on around the incident commander, that person must stay focused on continual scene assessment, looking for any, and all what-ifs. Is the scene still safe? Is the strategy still working? Do we still have all the resources we need? The firefighters working the scene stay focused on the rescue, trusting, sometimes with their lives, the judgement of the incident commander.

A decision to abort the rescue would come from the incident commander only as a last resort if the situation was deemed to be too unsafe to continue. Leaving a rescue mission would be heartbreaking for the firefighters and other emergency personal, who are trained to save lives. But safety for everyone is paramount.

Rescue operations are not always successful. No matter how hard firefighters, paramedics, and other rescue personnel try, sometimes patients don’t survive. This can take a toll on people. Occupational stress is serious factor in the lives of people who choose to make their living helping others.

Now that you have a little more insight into what emergency personnel face, next time you see a firefighter, paramedic, or police officer, maybe take time to stop and thank them for their service.

Catch Driving with Jens on CHON FM Thursdays at 8:15. If you have any questions or comments you can reach out to Jens Nielsen at drivingwithjens@gmail.com, Facebook or Twitter: @drivingwithjens.

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