Maximizing Your Tool Cache

Which are the must-have tools on a rescue company, and which are nice to have? How does your department operate, and what are your target rescue situations? This article discusses these questions and others. Every rescue tool and system available will not be covered, but your department will be able to expand the tool packages and groups discussed. If the rig and the budget are big enough, the list can be endless.

(1) Photos by Robert Scott Button.
(1) Photos by Robert Scott Button.

In smaller departments, the rescue equipment available may be a small cache tailored to the most common responses. In this day and age, tools such as saws, air bags, jacks, cribbing, rigging, and hand tools comprise the basics for rescue. The cost of buying powered hydraulic or pneumatic tool systems can be prohibitive. Consider brand reputation, reliability, and compatibility. Interoperability may be another consideration if you are equipping more than one rig or mutual-aid companies that work together.

You should be able to use all the tools you have under all circumstances. This, of course, involves training. Buying packages allows departments to train to a strong foundation and, as the budget permits, to expand the equipment package along with the training program.

Spreading and Lifting

Rescue units generally perform lifts. The rig crew has numerous options for accomplishing these tasks. Factors identified during size-up-including the weight of the object, the distance to the lift point, the distance to be moved, the type of material, stability, and the time required-help to determine which tools and equipment are needed. Simple lifts can become complicated, and complex lifts can become unmanageable if the proper tools are not selected or the lifting plan is not appropriate. Know which tools are available and their uses and limitations when devising your rescue plan.

We don’t have to look any further than the halligan to find an example of a tool commonly used as a class 1 or 2 lever. When accompanied by a flathead ax, which can be our inclined plane or fulcrum, this pair of tools can provide significant mechanical advantage in spreading/lifting situations. If a 36-inch lever is good, then a longer lever must be better. In most situations, it is.

A five-foot steel pinch bar matched with the appropriate fulcrum and applied force may be the immediate solution to a lifting problem in the same way that the halligan and ax solve entry situations. Mechanical jacks such as high-lift jacks and building jacks are also simple machines: By applying manual force, you can lift objects. Hydraulic jacks follow the same principle in that they are manually operated; pumping fluid against a piston under pressure moves the load.

Powered hydraulics have replaced the physical component of operating the pump to accomplish the same goal. Instead of manually pumping the fluid, the pump is operated by a power source such as electricity, air, or fuel.

In the early 1980s, the high-pressure air bag for lifting was introduced. It works on the principle: lifting surface2 × pounds per square inch of the compressed air put into the bag. Since the shape of the air bag changes as air is added, so does the capacity it can lift. Full-surface contact with the base, cribbing, or ground and the object to be moved is the goal for air bag use. With a mechanical or hydraulic jack, capability is not diminished with lift. Depending on the hydraulic jack manufacturer, horizontal capacity may be reduced by 50 percent, so no one lifting the tool solves all the problems. Also, consider that cribbing that can accommodate the load being lifted must be used in conjunction with all of the above choices. An adequate supply of 2 × 4 or 4 × 4 plywood and wedges is essential (photo 1).

Vehicle Accidents

When equipping a rescue with tools, consider grouping or packages. Systems can be expanded as budgets allow, but make sure the system will work for you. Not every department faces the same types of operations. Be guided by the types of responses that are most common for your department and that could occur in your district. If motor vehicle accidents are the most normal responses in your district, the mainstay of your rig might include a reliable powered hydraulic spreader, a cutter, and a set of rams. It would be more efficient to have a duplication of the tools used most often so members can operate simultaneously. Newer editions of battery-powered hydraulic tools are proving their worth. They can supplement existing systems and provide rapid deployability.

In addition, you would need some type of strut stabilization system for vehicle accidents-ideally, a system that could be expanded for trench or collapse (photo 2). Consider not only cost but also brand reputation and what neighboring departments are using so that the tool systems are interchangeable in larger operations.


The type of blade and the power that moves it determine a saw’s effectiveness. A well-maintained gasoline rotary saw is a must for fireground and rescue operations. Choices include 12-, 14-, and 16-inch blade capabilities. Carbide toothed, abrasives, and diamond are among the common blade choices for our uses. In addition, an electric cut-off saw with the same blade capabilities can be used where exhaust may create an issue. If emergency building shoring is within your realm, then include a 10¼-inch circular saw for cutting lumber. No rescue unit should be without a reciprocating saw. This versatile go-to tool has made many a rescue. Blades for reciprocating saws have undergone recent changes in composition. High-end carbide-tipped blades have had proven results in the fire service and can cut boron. If possible, it would be advantageous to have two reciprocating saws.

Angle grinders with a type 1 or a type 27 wheel are valuable in a metal scenario. Some of the above tools can be battery operated. Experience with battery-powered tools varies, but rotating batteries and following the manufacturer’s instructions for charging improve results. The battery will be depleted with use. Always bring a spare battery and a spare blade with you. Always back up cordless tools with a corded tool to prevent interruption of an operation. A deep-cut band saw is a nice-to-have tool (photo 3). You can easily manage the control of the speed of the cut, vibration, and heat transfer. In rounding out saw capabilities from biggest to smallest, the high-speed, lightweight rotary tool enables you to make cuts of surgical precision in situations where fingers or toes are in close proximity.

Nice-to-Have Tools

These tools can be powered from a compressor mounted on the rig or from your supply of self-contained breathing apparatus cylinders. This group of tools may include small rotary saws with a three-inch abrasive blade, such as a whizzer. It is nice to have a small pneumatic reciprocating saw that may enhance close-in cut capabilities in metal and plastics.

An impact wrench or air ratchet, when paired with the right sockets, will speed up disassembly tasks. Air chisels are also ideal for rescue work. Depending on the tool size, capabilities may range from sheet metal to plate steel. Larger style air chisels are also effective on concrete.

An additional cutting group of tools would include oxy-fuel cutting torches, which may be oxygen gasoline, oxygen, acetylene, or exothermic type torches. Space limitations on the rig often determine the size of the cylinders and, therefore, the torch capabilities (photo 4).

Heavy rigging equipment-slings, chain, and shackles matched with tools such as come-alongs-is used for anchoring/stabilizing and horizontal or vertical load movement. Slings may be wire rope, flat nylon, or endless loop style. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration-rated equipment carries a tag on the component that explains capabilities. Chains used in rescue work should be grade 80 or higher; use slip and grab style hooks. Match rated shackles with the slings to maintain capacities.

It would be nice to have a portable winch. The truck-mounted style will increase your load movement and anchoring capabilities (photo 5).

Hand tools in groups such as sockets, wrenches, nut drivers, and screwdrivers have endless value in rescue operations. Disassembly of items may be the immediate solution to an entrapment. Since we never know the task until we are called, size groups including ¼-, 3⁄8-, and ½-inch drive sets with standard, metric, shallow, and deep sockets are necessities. Hex wrenches, pliers, pipe wrenches, and punches will round out the cache. Consider cordless driver drills or cordless impact wrenches to speed up disassembly (photo 6).

This is not a complete list of equipment for the rescue rig, but it’s a good start. Know what’s in the toolbox, and train to use it to capacity.

THOMAS KENNEY is a captain with the Hyannis (MA) Fire Department, where he has served for 33 years. He is a rescue team manager and a collapse rescue instructor with the Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency and MA-TF1. He is a partner in Heavy Rescue Incorporated, a fire service training company; he has lectured and taught nationally for more than 20 years.

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