Tech Rescue

The Advantages of Ambidexterity on the Extrication Scene

Issue 7 and Volume 8.

As summer approaches, many sports fans turn their interest and excitement to Major League Baseball. Managers constantly employ various strategies and tactics in an effort to score more runs than the other team. One of the more valued weapons that a manager has in their arsenal is the switch hitter. Being able to bat from both sides of the plate makes it a lot easier for managers to put a player in a lineup, and they don’t have to worry about whether they’ll be facing left-handed or right-handed pitchers. Some of the best hitters in the game—Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose and Chipper Jones, to name a few—were great switch hitters.

Most people are either left-handed or right-handed and have a dominant hand they use most easily when playing sports, writing or completing other tasks. An ambidextrous person is able to use both their hands equally well, especially for tasks that require fine manipulation or detail. Although only a small percentage of the population is born ambidextrous, the defining characteristic of being able to complete motor skills with either hand can be learned through training and repetition.

Ambidexterity Advantages
So what does this have to do with extrication? During extrication tactics, responders should be able to operate tools with a certain degree of ambidexterity. After viewing mostly inexperienced recruits during Basic Extrication training sessions, I noticed many times that their awkwardness while operating the tools was related to their inability to switch hands to place tools in the most advantageous position. There are several advantages to operating tools from both sides of the body, including maximizing the work area, maintaining safe positions on the tool and decreasing the supervisor’s involvement. Let’s review each of these advantages.

Maximizing the Work Area
There are many situations—side removals, tunnel operations, etc.—where multiple tool operators are working in a fairly small area in and around the vehicle. In other situations, the technical personnel may be working in close proximity to the interior medical personnel. Both of these situations require responders to position their body to allow for simultaneous work. This may mean using their non-dominant hand when it would not otherwise be a problem. When completing tactics in cramped spaces, such as seat operations on the interior of the vehicle, there may only be one viable position for the tool and responder.

Responder Positioning
During training sessions and real-world events, responders have a tendency to use their dominant hand to operate the tool controls, whether it’s a trigger on an air chisel or a control on a hydraulic tool. Unfortunately, this may lead to unsafe and compromising positions, and even the inability to complete tactics. During the completion of tactics with hydraulic tools, it’s typically safer and more advantageous to keep the tool between the body and the vehicle. When responders place their legs and/or torso between the tool and the vehicle, this creates an opportunity for it to get pinched, especially if the responder isn’t paying attention to tool reaction. For instance, if responders are completing a side removal from the rear to the front on the driver’s side of a wheel-resting vehicle, then operating the controls with the right hand would position the responder in the safest position.

Decreasing Supervisor Involvement
The disentanglement supervisor is responsible for all functions at the tactical level. Among their many duties is the need to monitor all members for compliance of safe work practices. And every time the disentanglement supervisor has to correct a tool operator’s position because of potential safety concerns, it takes away from their ability to manage other functions. A responder who consistently puts their body in compromising positions because they don’t switch hand and body position to their non-dominant hand should be corrected by the supervisor before potential injury occurs. In addition, over time the supervisor begins to decrease their confidence in the responder to safely carry out the tactics, indirectly leading to the perceived need for closer supervision.

Make It Happen
The only way to gain some ambidexterity is to simply practice and train using your non-dominant hand. There are several ways to accomplish this, specific to extrication tools, without spending every waking minute in the junkyard.
•    During daily and/or weekly equipment inspections, operate the tools using your non-dominant hand. Run them through a cycle several times while quickly moving and stopping, changing speeds and directions, etc.
•    Conduct drills at the station that involve grabbing objects such as water bottles or pieces of cribbing, spreading hose rolls a specific distance, etc. Make it a fun game that involves competition.
•    After completing tactics and removing parts from the vehicle during training, make several cuts, spreads and crushes on the car parts using your non-dominant hand. Simple, repetitive cuts along the length of a post will help develop the non-dominant hand for applicable situations.

Not all switch hitters were born with the ability to hit from either side of the plate; some learned the skill through dedication to their craft and hours of hard work. I’m not advocating that all responders be completely ambidextrous, but we should all be prepared to use our non-dominant hand to operate power tools, and in those instances, we should be able to perform the action in a proficient manner that does not put us in an unsafe position. Further, the ability to complete tasks with both hands also applies to numerous other fire service tasks, such as ventilation from ladders depending on wind direction, forcible entry of doors depending on swing direction, etc., so in short, it can only help your rescue and fireground operations.