By Jean Cole
EAST LIMESTONE —
Like the 1970s television hero “The Six Million Dollar Man,” East Limestone Volunteer Fire Department’s new “Jaws of Life” tool is better, stronger, faster.
The battery operated tool does what the old one did in rescuing motorists trapped in wreckage, but its portability, strength and speed are like nothing these smoke eaters have seen before.
“These jaws are faster than the others and a little bit stronger, and that could make the difference in saving a life,” firefighter Kasey Brown said.
East is the only VFD in Limestone County, and along with Huntsville Fire Department, one of the few in North Alabama with the state-of-the-art tools.
Although hydraulic jaws have been saving lives for decades, those that are five to 10 years old have difficulty cutting through the new materials in some vehicles, particularly higher-end vehicles, Brown said.
“Some of the new vehicles are made of boron steel and carbon steel, which are very strong building materials, and the older tools were not up to that challenge,” Brown said.
The new tool can turn a 2-minute hood removal into a 5-second task, he said, which is important when a car engine is ablaze.
Hydraulic vs. electric
Older rescue tools operate on hydraulic power. A truck-mounted hydraulic generator linked to the tool by a hose powers some, a portable generator that can be carried to the scene of the vehicle powers others. Either way, it takes more than one firefighter to carry the equipment and operate the tool, Brown said.
The new electric or “e-draulic” jaws are better. The power supply is aboard the tool itself in the form of a 26-volt battery, just like the batteries are aboard a drill or reciprocating saw you might find at a home-improvement store, Brown said.
“So, if a person crashes and rolls 200 feet off the road, all we have to do is grab the tool instead of tying up three people — one guy can do it,” Brown said.
For those who have ever been confounded by a battery-operated screwdriver, this equipment isn’t like it.
“We were curious to see how strong the tool was so we took it to a junkyard at Import Autos on 72, where they gave us two cars to work on,” Brown said. “We took the roofs off, we rolled back the dashboards and cut the seats out of the cars. This tool cuts through metal like a hot knife through butter.”
Another great aspect of East’s acquisition is its willingness to share the tools with neighboring departments.
“We have already used them at a couple of wreck scenes on (Alabama) 251, one of a neighboring department,” Brown said. “We went ahead and showed them the tools and used them.”
East still will maintains a set of hydraulic rescue tools as a backup, he said.
It is planning to sell its old set, and has already shown them to Clements and Oak Grove-Thach VFDs, he said.
East’s new rescue tool didn’t cost $6 million like the 1970s cyborg Steve Austin, but it was pretty pricey — about $50,000 for the tool and accessories, including a cutter, spreader, ram, backup batteries, and an AC conversion kit so that if all the batteries are spent, firefighters could crank up the generator to power it.
The department also replaced its old jaws, which cost about $30,000 to $40,000, Brown said.
In the coming weeks, a representative of Hurst, the company that manufactures the e-draulic, rather than hydraulic, tools will visit East VFD to give firefighters an advanced look at what the new tool can do, Brown said.
East members thought long and hard before deciding to buy the new rescue tools.
“With our limited budget, we have to make those decisions very carefully,” Brown said. “As a group, we really took a hard look at what we needed and we think this investment will really pay off.”