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  • Writer's pictureBrad Keating

Jaws of Life Car Accident - What One Needs to Know

Updated: Jan 17

Imagine that someone is driving down the interstate. They reach down to grab a cell phone that fell to the floorboards. In one instant, they swerve onto the road's shoulder, and the vehicle flips as they try to gain control. When the car stops, they have suffered a broken leg, with the car upside down and the victim pinned under the dashboard. In that type of situation, fire rescue workers are likely to use the Jaws of Life tool to cut the car away and help the person get out.

The Jaws of Life are actually various hydraulic tool options called spreaders, rams, and cutters. They can pry vehicles open when they're involved in car crashes where the victim is trapped inside.

During an emergency, a few extra seconds could cost lives. Therefore, the Jaws of Life are used to remove the victim from the crashed vehicle. They can also extricate victims from collapsed steel or concrete structures after an earthquake.

It's crucial to understand how the hydraulic system works, the purpose of the Jaws of Life device, and how they might cause more harm to the victim. That often results in people contacting a personal injury lawyer for assistance.

Hydraulic Fluid and Hydraulic Pump

Hydraulic Fluid and Hydraulic Pump

Oil is often the most-used incompressible fluid for a hydraulic machine. However, the Jaws of Life equipment requires a phosphate ester fluid, which is electrically non-conductive and fire-resistant. At the crash scene, such synthetic fluid is preferred over conventional oil.

Within a simple hydraulic system, a piston pushes the rod down, which transmits the oil with all the original force into another piston, making it go up.

The Jaws of Life equipment is actually considered unsophisticated hydraulic machinery because it requires very few parts involved to make it work.

With a cutter and spreader, there's a portable engine to pump pressurized hydraulic fluid into each piston-cylinder through a hose port (there are two). The typical Jaws of Life machine requires about 1 quart of the liquid.

There's an operator-controlled valve switch that controls which port the fluid goes into. If it enters that port, the fluid forces up the rod to open the blades of the cutter or the arms of the spreader. Now, the operator can toggle a switch to make the rod retract, which closes the blades or arms.

Most people don't realize that there are multiple types of equipment called the Jaws of Life. The one used depends on the situation.


A spreader pulls the structure pieces apart, but it can also be inserted into a vehicle's side to tear out a section.

Cutters and spreaders are what most people think of when they hear news reports about the Jaws of Life being used. The power jaws of those machines tear apart the vehicles as one might cut through a tin can.

Overall, the spreader pulls the pieces apart. The cutter cuts through the vehicle like bolt cutters, though it's much bigger. The mechanics of how the devices work are similar, and some equipment combines the spreader and cutter into a single machine to save money, time, and effort.

A spreader has aluminum alloy arms that are pincer-like. The tips are made using heat-treated steel to give the most strength for tearing into a building or vehicle. They come in different sizes, as well. Therefore, the specifications differ as to the spreading force the equipment has or how much space must be opened on the vehicle.

Example of a Spreader

As an example, let's check out the ML-32 Hurst spreader. It offers:

  • 16,000 pounds of spreading force

  • 14,400 pounds of pulling force

  • 32 inches of opening distance

Similar spreaders on the market provide less or more spreading or pulling force. The body of the spreader is made using aluminum alloy. However, the piston rod and piston are made with forged alloy steel. Whenever the portable engine is started, the oil flows through hydraulic hoses into the hydraulic pump found inside the machine's housing.

The typical power unit is a 5-horsepower gasoline engine operating at 5,000 PSI (pounds per square inch). However, the pressure might differ in other power units. This engine type runs on roughly 0.5 gallons of gasoline for up to an hour.

Overall, the operator must slide the valve switch to open the arms of the spreader. That causes the hydraulic fluid to flow from the hose into a cylinder. This pushes the rod and piston up. That rod is attached to some linkages, which are attached to the spreader's arms. As the rod goes up, the linkages rotate to open the arms.

From there, the operator closes the arms by moving the valve in the other direction to cause the fluid to flow into the second hose.

A rescue worker must insert the closed arms into the vehicle or structure opening to use the spreader. It can clamp down on items to crush the material between its strong arms. Now, it's crucial to learn how cutters and rams work.

Rams and Cutters

As with spreaders, cutters use a mouth that closes and opens. However, a cutter is like a big chomper that bites through metal and other materials. Those who have seen the device in action know that it can snap vehicle door-posts like twigs in a matter of seconds. As the pressure goes down on the door-post, it snaps through it.

Cutters often have a housing made of aluminum alloy and use heat-treated, forged steel blades. The piston rod and piston are made using heat-treated alloy steel, as well.

The cutters can be used to shear or cut through materials, such as plastic or sheet metal. However, they're often used to cut through vehicles to free the trapped passengers. Like the spreader, it runs off a gasoline-driven unit. Plus, Jaws of Life systems may be powered hydraulically, pneumatically, or electrically.

Instead of using arms, a cutter has claw-like, curved extensions that come to a point. As with the spreader, the hydraulic fluid flows into the cylinder to put pressure on the piston. Depending on which side the force is exerted on, the claws can close or open. When the piston rod gets raised, they open. Then, as the rod lowers, the cutter's claws come together around the structure, such as the car roof, to pinch through it.

Example of a Cutter

Cutters often come in various sizes. However, let's focus on the Hurst Jaws of Life model (ML-40). This model provides the operator with:

  • 12,358 pounds of cutting force for the blade center

  • 22,455 pounds of cutting force at the notch

  • 4.25-inch cuts

Mike Brick and Tim Smith originally developed the spreader in 1972 and then later created the hydraulic ram. Brick coined the Jaws of Life phrase after he noticed that people said the new device saved car accident victims.

Understanding the operation of a cutter and spread means that the ram doesn't seem as complex, either. It's similar to a pair of scissors (if they used hydraulics). The ram is the most basic hydraulic system: one must use hydraulic fluid to move the piston head inside the cylinder to retract and extend the piston rod.

Heavy construction equipment, such as a backhoe loader, uses a ram to control its boom arm.


Rams can push collapsed dashboards forward to get a victim free. The ram's function focuses on pushing sections of the structure apart. For example, rescue workers could place the ram on a door frame, extend the piston to make the dashboard go up, and create enough space to get the person out of the vehicle.

Hydraulics play a crucial part in the machines out there. However, none are as vital as the Jaws of Life equipment. They've been used to save thousands of lives where seconds mean the difference between death and life.

Along with hoses and fire trucks, the Jaws of Life are the most recognizable tools a firefighter has. However, most people aren't aware of the rich history of it and its many uses.

Why Were Hydraulic Rescue Tools Created?

Hydraulic rescue tools were actually patented for the first time by George Hurst in 1961. He had witnessed rescue crew taking over one hour to remote stock car drivers from a car accident. Before the George Hurst products were in use, rescuers often had to grab circular saws to cut open the vehicle frames. This had many drawbacks:

  • Traditional saws create sparks, which increase the chance of an explosion or fire.

  • They take longer to create a safe opening to remove the victim, which increases the probability of an injury.

  • They're very loud, which puts undue stress on car accident victims.

Hurst hydraulic tools were praised immediately because they quickly extricated the accident victims and snatched people from what they called the "jaws of death." That's actually what led to the nickname "the Jaws of Life." Hurst chose to register the trademark nickname.

Though Hurst tools are the only ones that can officially be called the Jaws of Life, the term refers to many brands of hydraulic tools like them.

How the Jaws of Life Work

When someone calls for a rescue, the fire department sends out a crew. They arrive at the location and assess it. The piston system makes it all work with the help of an electrical or gasoline power source if the Jaws of Life tool is needed. This pushes the fluid into the piston and drives the second piston down to apply huge amounts of pressure quickly. The Jaws of Life works in about two minutes instead of taking an hour or more to extricate a victim.

Though oil can be used in hydraulic equipment, it's very flammable. Therefore, it's not recommended.

PPE Required for Extrication During Car Crashes

Firefighters have specific and standard fire gear to wear. However, during an extrication for a car accident, they require PPE, as well. They wear extrication suits, which gives firefighters the flexibility and mobility needed to react as the situation changes. However, firefighters also have to keep safety in mind. Therefore, good suits have:

  • Reflective areas to warn oncoming traffic to ensure the firefighters are safe

  • Lightweight material for flexibility

  • Fire-resistant for perilous situations

  • Reinforced knees and elbows to increase padding when crawling or maneuvering around on the ground to remove victims

Firefighters also require solid extrication gloves. They are cut-resistant and protect them from metal and glass. However, they also offer tactile feedback so that they can recognize what they're touching. This works well when vision is impaired from obstructions, rain, smoke, or low lighting conditions.

The Jaws of Life are crucial, and each fire department should have them. Using hydraulic technology allows them to safely, efficiently, and quickly extricate victims that are trapped in wrecked cars. In the past, race car drivers were saved with power tools. Now, the Jaws of Life save countless lives each year from death or injury.

However, this also raises a question: What might happen if the extraction caused another injury? Generally, victims seek medical attention for their wounds and then speak with a personal injury lawyer to determine if the fire department was negligent in their actions. It's not easy to operate such a tool, and appropriate training is required.

How Vehicle Extractions Work

In car crashes that involve higher rates of speed (and others), the collision bends or crunches the vehicle so much that those inside can't get out. Sometimes, they can't move at all and are pinned down by whatever was in the vehicle (typically the dashboard or seat).

The fire department and first responders must use the Jaws of Life To extract them. This multi-attachment tool uses a generator to power up the hydraulics to open, cut, or push apart the plastic and metal components of a car. That's a huge upgrade from circular saws and crowbars that used to be relied on for extracting trapped drivers. However, if the Jaws of Life isn't used properly, it could cause more serious injuries.

What Happens If People Are Injured Because of Extrication?

What Happens If People Are Injured Because of Extrication?

The first step after a car accident is to get medical attention. That way, the victim can heal from physical injuries. Typically, they hire an auto accident lawyer to file a claim against the negligent parties involved, such as the other driver. However, that can also include firefighters (or the department), the police, and first responders. Let's take a closer look at why:

Negligence Might Lead to Liability

The Jaws of Life are there to reduce the risks to those inside the vehicle. However, if they are used negligently or recklessly, they could hurt the occupants in a way that they might not have been hurt in from the crash alone.

For example, if the fire department doesn't take the right precautions, the firefighter might end up cutting off a driver's hand while they're cutting into the car door. In a case like this, the victim must be allowed to recover compensation from the Jaws of Life operator because they were negligent!

Negligent Training Is Needed

Victims can also make the legal argument that the first responder who used the equipment wasn't properly trained and ended up hurting them.

The Jaws of Life are actually a complicated piece of machinery. First responders must be trained to use the Jaws of Life effectively and safely. If they aren't, they could use it incorrectly and hurt someone that they were trying to save. It might seem farfetched, but it happens frequently.

Because departmental failures happen, victims might have to file a personal injury lawsuit against the police or fire departments that didn't adequately train the employees.

Call the Keating Law Firm

Cars are dangerous and made of metal and plastic. It's crucial to understand the safety rules of operating one. However, even if the car accident victim does everything they should, they could still be in a crash. In most cases, their life is in danger, so the fire department must use a special tool to get them out of the vehicle. The Jaws of Life tool is an excellent piece of equipment because it can cut through a cars' roof or door to extricate the person from within.

These fire rescue tools are incredibly helpful and safe. However, they must be used by people who are trained to utilize the device.

Therefore, victims of car crashes might have a personal injury case against the driver for hitting them and the operator of the Jaws of Life. They could have been injured from the collision and then hurt even more badly because of negligence or incorrect training of the firefighters.

No one wants to think of getting hurt while they're running errands or going to work, but it happens. It's best to seek medical attention immediately to get help with any injuries. However, afterward, victims should call Keating Law Firm. The attorneys here can listen to the situation, determine if negligence occurred and by whom, and work to get the victim the compensation they deserve, such as getting an average settlement for rear-end car accident. Visit the website to learn more and contact the law firm for a free consultation.

2 תגובות

Percy Joyce
Percy Joyce
3 days ago

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13 במרץ 2023

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