When Plan C Doesn’t Work

Issue 3 and Volume 15.

A Volvo dump truck slid 150 feet down a 450-foot quarry embankment and got stuck. A wrecker was used to support the rope systems used to rescue the driver and was prepared to secure the truck. (Photo courtesy of East Whiteland Township Fire Department, Chester County, PA.)

Have you ever been to that call where you arrive and say to yourself, “I have no clue how I’m going to get that person out!”? This situation is increasing in frequency as car manufacturers are building the passenger compartment stronger than ever to protect the people riding in the vehicle from both intrusion and ejection. What will you do when your standard toolbox of tricks will not work to extricate a patient? Although these calls are few and far between, we need to be prepared because every victim is someone’s loved one and deserves our best extrication effort.

The involved vehicle is underneath a loaded tractor trailer with a victim entrapped. The truck was lifted by the wrecker and the vehicle was pulled out, allowing the fire department to extricate the patient. (Photo courtesy of Fastlane Towing, Easton, PA.)

There is a whole world of rescue out there that is outside of the box. Large recovery wreckers with winches are one of those out-of-the-box tools. Following is an example of a situation where a large recovery wrecker was the best option:

On September 28, 2018, Fast Lane Towing from Northampton County, PA, assisted rescuers with the removal of a victim out from under a vehicle. The incident involved a passenger vehicle with a person trapped under a fully loaded tractor trailer. The first-arriving fire crews tried several methods to remove the victim; one of their plans was to request a tow truck. Because of the damage and lack of structural integrity of the trailer, there was no way to roll it off the vehicle; instead it had to be lifted off. According to Fast Lane Towing, the tractor trailer had rolled over onto a car and people were trapped inside the vehicle. Police and fire were requesting heavy wreckers to lift the loaded tractor trailer off the car so victims could be extricated. The tow truck that responded lifted and rolled the trailer while the fire department pulled the car out from under it.

Heavy wreckers can also help to overcome environmental factors preventing fire department access. (Photo courtesy of Null’s Towing, Cochranville, PA.)

The tow industry is the elephant in the room in some departments. Can we use tow trucks in the fire service? Are they safe to use in an emergency? Is their equipment tested? The answer to all of those questions is yes, we absolutely can. Several major cities across the country have integrated them as part of the fire department. Miami Dade, FL; Portland, OR; and Washington, DC Fire Department are just a few of the departments across the country that have their own heavy-duty tow trucks.

A Vulcan 35-ton wrecker. (Photo courtesy of author.)

A Jerr-Dan 50/60-ton rotator. (Photo courtesy of author.)

A Washington DC Fire Department fleet heavy wrecker that responds with specially trained firefighters. (Photo courtesy of author.)

Let’s talk about what it’s like when tow trucks are not part of your fire department. Tow trucks are not required to have a safety factor built into their working load limit (WLL), but some companies choose to do this on their own. For example, NRC, a manufacturer of large recovery wreckers in Canada, rates its trucks to 80% of their stability point. If you understand this, you can create your own safety factors with the tow operator. Heavy tow trucks have a minimum capacity of 25 US tons; most are much higher per national classification. Compare this to aerial devices, which have a 2:1 safety factor with a ½ WLL, and which we hang people off of to work.

Two heavy wreckers performing a controlled roll of a loaded tractor trailer. (Photo courtesy of Null’s Towing, Cochranville, PA.)

Having more than one heavy wrecker on an incident multiplies the number of tools in your toolbox. (Photo courtesy of Null’s Towing, Cochranville, PA.)

By adding snatch blocks to a heavy wrecker’s four to six cables, the options for rigging are nearly endless. (Photo courtesy of Null’s Towing, Cochranville, PA.)

All of the rigging equipment that tow trucks use–chains, webbing slings, winches, etc.–has standards and regulations that apply to it, which are set by organizations like the Web Sling & Tie-Down Association (WSTDA), the Associated Wire Rope Fabricators (AWRF), the Association of Crane and Rigging Professionals (ACRP), and the National Association of Chain Manufacturers (NACM). These industry standards are in addition to the requirements set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The standards that the industry is held to are not that different from what the fire department uses. This is not to say that everyone maintains their equipment to the standard or purchases rated equipment, but this provides the basis for a conversation with the tow operator.

Three patients were entrapped in the vehicle, underneath the truck, up against the Jersey barrier. A heavy wrecker was prepared to lift the truck; however, all three patients were extricated successfully without lifting the truck. (Photo courtesy of Lincoln Fire Company, Lancaster County, PA.)

There is no federal regulation that dictates a set inspection on the winch and boom; it is up to the tow company to ensure that those are inspected daily and after every use, as the manufacturer recommends. There are also OSHA standards that could be followed as well, if the service chooses, but OSHA does not have a specific standard for tow trucks.

Generally speaking, there is no required tow recovery operator certification, but there are certifications that many of the heavy tow operators choose to obtain. There are several different types of classes including those with only a written test and those that include a written and practical examination. These certifications have individually assigned numbers and expirations that go along with them. The tow industry wants to be considered professional and is making strides to improve educational programming.

The most important thing you can do to integrate heavy wreckers into your toolbox is to get to know your local tow company owner and operators. You should not be meeting and working with the tow company and its operators for the first time on an emergency incident scene. Learn their capabilities before you need them. Every tow truck has different capabilities and limitations. Additionally, you will need to determine the skill level and the thoroughness of the equipment maintenance. Build relationships that foster mutual respect before an incident occurs.

Tow operators also speak a different language than the fire service. For example, firefighters talk about a “2:1 mechanical advantage.” Tow operators call this “2 lines to the load.” What we refer to as shackles most of them call clevises. Speaking the same language is important for the success of an operation. For the most part, the rigging equipment is the same as the fire service, just on a larger scale.

Here are some examples of things a tow truck can do for you:
• Stabilize the vehicle–prevent it from rolling down a hill or falling off a bridge.
• Lift vehicles off each other.
• Lift concrete or steel beams.
• Controlled rolling of a vehicle back onto its wheels.

I have seen a fire department spend more than two hours extricating a patient from a vehicle who could have been removed much more quickly with a controlled roll of the vehicle. The weight alone of a heavy tow truck is more than most fire trucks. They also have up to four different winch cables that can be used independently. Some of the heavy tow trucks are rotators as well, which allows them to lift and then rotate the load away for the victim.

When you arrive at an incident and determine that you need a heavy tow truck, consider the following:
• Have you trained with the company that is being called?
• What is their weight capacity?
• What is their maximum cable length?
• Do they have rated and certified equipment?
• Do you need a rotator or a stationary boom?
• What is their travel time vs. the time to execute another plan?

If you do not know the answers to these questions or have reservations, don’t use them.

When requesting a tow company, use the company for which you know the answers to the questions above. If you are not specific, the dispatcher may send a random company off of a list. Consider having your dispatch codes include a tow truck on certain types of dispatches involving commercial vehicles with extenuating circumstances. One example would be a car underneath a vehicle.

Consider this checklist for tow operations:
• Did you leave room for the tow truck? If you have all of the vehicles parked around the scene, there is no way a tow truck will be able to get in position to help.
• Did you verify there are no other loads or hazards that will be impacted by moving the vehicle?
• Do you need a police escort to get the tow truck through the backlogged traffic?
• Do you have the tow operator’s phone number? If so, you can send him pictures of the scene. This can be extremely helpful when the operator is deciding what type of tow truck, as well as how many trucks and operators will be needed.
• Remember that they recover vehicles for a living and know how to do their job better than we do.
• When the tow operator arrives, meet with the operator and explain what you have and what you need to accomplish.
• Explain the limitations and your concerns, but DO NOT tell him how he must rig the vehicle. The operator knows his truck and his rigging better than us; he does this every day.

Finally, there are two common myths about tow companies that are perpetuated in the fire service because of poor communication and lack of understanding:
1. Tow operators are just in it for the money. Tow operators, like any business, need to make money, but they are also there to provide a service. I have never had a tow company charge the fire department for a response to an emergency rescue operation.
2. Tow trucks are not safe. Tow operators can be held liable for any damage they cause to the vehicle they are towing or moving. They maintain their equipment to prevent damage. These drivers want to go home to their family and not be one of the deaths that happen every six days.

When plan C doesn’t work, be prepared with plan D. Build relationships with your local tow operators and train together so that you know what resources are available to you when the call comes in. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box!


Richard Garber is a captain/station commander with the Anne Arundel County (MD) Fire Department and a 20-year veteran of the fire service. He has more than 10 years of experience as a member of the department’s Technical Rescue Team and is a nationally registered paramedic. He serves on the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Department Rescue Tools, has certifications as a Pennsylvania and Maryland fire instructor, and specializes in teaching NFPA 1006 courses focused on technical and industrial rescue.