What Are the “Jaws of Life?”

This morning Los Angeles County firefighters and paramedics extracted golfing star Tiger Woods from his demolished SUV with the “Jaws of Life.” While many have heard the term some still don’t know what the Jaws of Life actually are. But you should because someday they may save your life.

Jaws of Life are typically hand-held hydraulic tools with powerful cutters

Jaws of life in fireman's hands
Fire Rescue, Jaws of Life demonstration on wrecked car | Getty

The Jaws of Life are typically hand-held hydraulic tools that are powerful cutters. But instead of sawing, which could ignite leaking gasoline or burn trapped passengers, they can cut through thick metal. Or conversely, they can spread it apart. Either way, they help in removing trapped victims in a serious accident when the vehicle has crushed in around the person. 

A portable engine pumps hydraulic fluid into a piston-cylinder. This either opens or closes arms that are attached to cutting blades or spreaders. Think of it as a hedge clipper only with larger jaws and hydraulic hoses running to it. By toggling a switch the hand-held device can open with a force of 16,000 pounds, or close with the force of 14,400 pounds. These numbers are for the ML-32 Hurst Jaws of Life. 

Jaws of life and car top with firefighters posing
Fire Rescue, Jaws of Life demonstration on wrecked car | Getty

The “Hurst” in the name is the same Hurst that makes shift mechanisms for cars, known as “Hurst shifters.” George Hurst developed the idea for the Jaws of Life back in 1961 after making his money one Hurst shifter at a time. Millions of Hurst shifters were sold in the 1960s and 1970s. Virtually every muscle car ever made came with a Hurst shifter. 

The jaws of the device can chomp through vehicle top pillars like butter

The jaws of the device can chomp through vehicle top pillars like butter. And metal that has trapped occupants can be pried away to make extraditing a victim easier and faster. The steel blades are made from forged, heat-treated metal. Most of the time the power unit running the Jaws is gasoline-driven. But it can also be electrical, pneumatic, or hydraulic. 

Mangled remains of car with firemen looking on
Three people were injured in a solo vehicle accident where firefighters used the Jaws of Life to extract the patients from the smashed black Honda. Fire personnel worked to stabilize the car after the extraction | Getty

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There are 12,358 pounds of cutting force at the blade center, 22,455 pounds of cutting force at the notch. The cutters are capable of cutting through 4.25-inch thick metal. They are also used for breaking apart or moving concrete or rocks in a cave-in or collapsed building. 

When a trapped passenger is seriously injured time is critical. The Jaws of Life have saved millions of victims of auto accidents over the decades. Much of the victims’ chances of survival depend on how quickly they receive medical attention. Without this life-saving device, it’s impossible to tell how many more people would die from their injuries in a car accident?