On most rescue trucks, the lifting airbag is the strongest tool in terms of lifting capacity. It is also probably one of the least-thought about and misunderstood tools available to the rescue world. For purposes of this post, I want to focus on the “least-thought about” part, especially in terms of longevity.
Last week, we experienced another lift bag failure when a 32-ton lifting bag failed during an evolution. For the evolution (part of a beginner class), two lifting bags were being used in a parallel configuration to lift the rear of a car when one of the bags failed (see attached photos). The weight being supported was less than 1000 lbs and the bag was at its maximum lifting height when it failed. The bag was not exposed to any sharp or hot surfaces in this lift, so those causes were ruled out. After further examination and confirmation from the manufacturer, it was determined that this bag – part of a larger set of the same vintage – was over 18 years old.
The manufacturer of this specific bag is not important to the conversation as all manufacturers say the same thing – lifting bags will only last so long. Rubber is a natural material that will degrade over time. It is extremely important to inspect and properly maintain lift bag equipment. Lift bags should be part of the regular checks, and as part of the check should be exercised (ie. put under some load and used to lift.). If the bag system is over 10 years old it should be inspected with even greater detail, and replacement needs to be considered. Check with the specific manufacturer for guidance on testing and replacement considerations. The NFPA will be adding language on lifting bags in the next revision of the rescue tool standard – NFPA 1936 which will provide further guidance.
It should go without saying that ANYTIME we lift, we need to follow the load with appropriate cribbing. In the case of this failure, the crew had appropriate cribbing in place and when the lift bag failed, the load remained supported.
Please make it a point to carefully inspect all lifting bag systems, and if there is any doubt remove them from service, and contact the manufacturer or your local dealer representative. If you do not know the year of manufacture of your current system, please find out!