Sep. 21, 2011 at 3:13 PM ET
When earthquakes, tsunamis and other disasters send emergency responders racing to rescue people trapped under piles of rubble, they now have a tool that allows them to cut through concrete with speed and precision.
The device, called the Controlled Impact Rescue Tool, was developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The agency explains that it uses blank ammunition cartridges to drive a piston that generates a high-energy jolt to create a contained hole in the concrete.
The force generated by the tool is concentrated in a localized area, the agency adds, which minimizes the risk that its use would further destabilize the surrounding structure or threaten victims.
In a demonstration of the technology in August at a conference in Washington, D.C., the CIRT busted an 18-inch-diameter hole through a 6-inch slab of reinforced concrete in less than 3 1/2 minutes.
Six of the 100-pound tools are already in the hands of FEMA and more are being rolled out to emergency responders around the country, according to DHS.
The concrete blaster joins a list of high-tech search and rescue tools that have already gained field experience such as the communication grids set up in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the robots sent to Japan this March.
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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com.