Safety first

Firefighter’s ingenuity spawns specialized rescue-equipment company

Tim O’Connell’s PodRunners can be customized for various public-safety industries.

Tim O’Connell’s PodRunners can be customized for various public-safety industries.

Photo by Evan tuchinsky

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For Tim O’Connell, business success has proven not only life-changing, but also life-saving.

O’Connell is the president and lead engineer of Rescue 42. The company, which he and wife Celia run in the industrial park abutting the Chico Airport, manufactures equipment for public-safety personnel.

When he came up with the idea for what would become his first product, the O-Plate, O’Connell was a volunteer firefighter who tended bar at Madison Bear Garden while taking classes at Chico State. He’d attended the university in 1978, then spent six years in the Navy—four on a submarine as a nuclear engineer.

Back then, his Butte County fire station responded to 800 calls a year. His background with hydraulics made him the logical choice to use—and train others to use—the Jaws of Life, a hydraulic power tool used to rip open crashed cars in order to free accident victims.

“Pretty soon I discovered there were weaknesses in the Jaws,” he said. “They were incredibly powerful tools, but they needed some place to stand on to hold up the world. So I developed a simple tool that … supported the Jaws of Life, that made it work better.”

Word spread. Sensing an opportunity, as well as a more promising livelihood, he started Rescue 42 (named after his fire helmet number). He opened up shop in 1995.

The first product was the O-Plate (short for O’Connell Plate). His namesake invention attaches to the Jaws of Life. The metal plate enhances traction—consequently, force—by gripping the curb or another surface. Soon followed the JackMate, a tool that increases the winching, crushing and clamping functionality of a regular lift jack.

TeleCrib Struts since emerged as Rescue 42’s bestseller. The expandable supports enable emergency responders to support precariously positioned vehicles—even lift them—to evacuate crash victims. The company sells thousands of sets per year.

PodRunners are mounted on trailer hitches. Pictured is a R.F.W.-Runner, which is equipped with retardant, foam and water.

Photo courtesy of rescue 42

Meanwhile, O’Connell has branched off into a new venture with wider applications. The PodRunner is a retractable cart on wheels, light enough to transport on a trailer hitch, yet durable enough to house technical equipment. One PodRunner may carry a pumping system for fire suppression; another may hold a satellite communications system.

All these products are designed and made in Chico.

“I started in my garage, and now here we are with about 20 employees and we ship all over the world,” O’Connell said during a recent interview in his office. “Chico is famous for little hidden businesses here that no one really knows exist.

“We keep a pretty low profile. We’re very intent to be a small company, doing our thing.”

Rescue 42 still sells O-Plates, which run $300, but the company’s signature product is the TeleCrib Strut, which O’Connell calls “a significant changer in the technology of how rescue is done … we’ve saved a lot of lives with that tool.”

The struts became necessary when cars became more rounded and sleek. The classic heavy metal boxes tend to stay put when rescuers put some wedges in place. Aerodynamics and plastics make vehicles harder to stabilize.

“We say they turned from bricks into beach balls,” said O’Connell, who remains a volunteer firefighter locally. “We have film of cars literally bouncing.”

To counteract the instability, he created struts that would apply pressure at the top of a vehicle, versus wedges at the bottom—“make a big triangle, so to speak.” Emergency workers even can lift the vehicle by using straps at the base to pull the struts together.

TeleCrib struts, first made in 1999, originally were metal; since 2005, they’ve been fabricated from composite materials infused with Kevlar, adding strength plus not conducting electricity.

Red, white and blue TeleCrib Struts brace this overturned tanker during a rescue in 2008 from a rollover on the Highway 99 onramp at the Skyway.

Photo courtesy of rescue 42

“We’re probably the second largest user of this material behind Boeing,” O’Connell said of the Kevlar composite. “It’s pretty exotic stuff, but it’s perfect for our uses.”

A set of four, with accessories, costs around $4,000. Rescue 42 has competitors and “had some come and go, but we’re the dominant one in the United States.”

The company has an expansive manufacturing floor, subdivided into large work rooms, at its headquarters. Two rooms feature strut production; PodRunner work has space unto itself.

PodRunner “is the future of our company,” O’Connell said, with the communications components representing “a total different direction, allowing us to grow and to move.”

Four years ago, working around cars and noticing the ubiquity of trailer hitches, O’Connell thought the rear of a vehicle offered an ideal location for toting a mobile unit. He envisioned compact command centers for emergency response; radio and cellular signal relays; portable water pumps that firefighters could wheel toward backyard pools; and other applications.

Since standard hitches can hold up to 500 pounds of downward force, O’Connell sought to create a self-contained system within that limitation.

The PodRunner base resembles an ambulance gurney, albeit with heavier metal and thicker supports for the elevating bed. A crank or drill controls the height.

Each base (i.e., runner) is uniform. On top, Rescue 42 installs a rectangular box (pod) with customized technology. O’Connell’s team, which includes three engineers on staff plus two engineering students, designs the equipment.

“We could put on a keg and a barbecue, but it would be a little expensive,” he said with a laugh. A PodRunner costs between $10,000 and $15,000, depending on the pod.

“It’s been a lot of work, but we’re seeing [the idea gain] traction,” O’Connell said, noting that PodRunner orders are coming in, including from customers beyond Rescue 42’s base of public safety. “By doing this, it literally allowed us to go into any industry we wanted.”