This month a vehicle fire video out of Kenner, Louisiana was circulated on a number of social media pages including Fire Engineering https://www.facebook.com/58419320350/posts/10156655908095351/ and Stop Believing Start Knowing (SBSK) https://www.facebook.com/StopBelievingStartKnowing/videos/223523309.... The video shows firefighters getting engulfed in a fireball following what appears to be the rupture of the fuel tank. The video also highlights a breakdown in safe and effective firefighting operations, which should encourage all who watch it to take some time to review vehicle fire best practices.
Like structure fires, vehicle fires are opportunities that invite complacency and should not be considered “Routine” or “Bread & Butter” incidents. They too require preplanning, training, 360 size-up, situational awareness, survivability profiling, and a risk v. benefits assessment at a minimum. When we use terms like routine and bread & butter, it hints to complacency as no two fires are the same. Firefighters must consider each and every fire incident as they encounter them.
On approach to a vehicle fire, gain your first impression of what you have. Positioning a safe distance away and offset from the vehicle fire aids in protecting operator, crew, and apparatus from heat, smoke, fire, explosion, and debris. This is often accomplished by staying uphill, upwind, and an effective distance away. Note the lay of land and additional hazards like power lines, gas lines or other exposures involved or nearby. Ensure an effective position so water and fuel runoff do not travel toward apparatus and crew. Consider the vehicles power supply, gasoline, natural gas, propane, battery fuel cells, etc.
Being fully prepared means being fully and properly geared up. Straps, buttons, Velcro, helmet, gloves, etc. must be secure on firefighters to provide optimal protection, especially when things go wrong. Sloppy use of gear speaks volumes to the attitude of firefighters, crew, officers, and department (culture/complacency). All members of the crew, including the apparatus operator and officer, must don the proper level of protection for their duties. When things go wrong, the operator and/or officer may be the first level of emergency response to downed firefighters. Firefighter effectiveness begins with proper use of personal protective equipment.
Today’s modern vehicle construction includes an increased use of plastics and safety devices. Many safety devices are explosive under normal (accident) conditions, but should be expected to blow off energy during fires. Tires, door, hatch, and hood struts, hollow drive shafts, shock absorbing bumpers, air bags, seatbelt retractors, batteries, magnesium engine blocks, and other items on or in the vehicle can create explosive environments for firefighters. The use of plastics will increase the heat release rate to create an intense and rapidly spreading fire.
When initiating the attack, bleed the hose line, set your stream pattern to a straight or solid stream. Begin the attack from a safe distance using the reach of your stream (30-50’). Keep the vehicle closed up as much as possible to prevent fire from getting its air. Once a knock down is achieved you can ventilate through windows or by opening doors where possible. When working to force entry into hoods and trunks, be cautious of working directly in front of or behind the vehicle. Make use of wheel well holes and front grills to attack engine compartment fires. Breaking out a headlight or taillight assembly may provide an access point to direct your stream into hood and trunk areas, more common on older vehicles.
Corner areas of the vehicle are often the safest zones to work in. Avoid the front, rear, and sides of vehicles to stay out of the path of exploding objects. When possible, consider chocking the vehicle to prevent its movement. Vehicles left in drive or neutral can roll. Starter motors in vehicles with manual transmissions can short circuit during fires and may allow a vehicle in gear to move (skip) down the street. A vehicle on fire and rolling toward or away from fire crews will further complicate matters. Chock the vehicle as soon as reasonable to keep the vehicle stationary.
Many modern fuel tanks are plastic. When the tank melts and ruptures the ensuing fire ball and leaking fuel needs to be expected. Firefighters, who remain at a safe working distance until the scene is controlled, can avoid injuries due to these expected circumstances. A quick sweep of the fuel tank area with water can immediately cool this area and may prevent the fuel tank from failing, although it will not take much heat for rubber and metal fuel lines and other oil lines to fail.
Many vehicles operate on alternative fuels like natural gas, propane, and electric battery cells. Each brings their own inherent risks that need to be understood and trained on. It is not out of the question to utilize larger streams, monitors or deck guns when circumstances dictate a rapid and sustained high water volume attack is required or recommended. Foam and dry chemical extinguishers should also be considered when applicable.
Electric vehicles that are fueled with large batteries are becoming more and more common, as are fires involving these vehicles. It’s important to stay abreast of the changing auto industry to understand how to deal with the increasing challenges new technology creates for firefighters. Speak with local dealers to see if you can conduct a drill with a mechanic versed in these vehicles to better understand their hazards, how to render them safe when possible, and how to mitigate incidents involving these vehicles.
Magnesium fires will cause explosive reactions when water is applied. A telltale sign is the presence of blue sparks violently releasing when burning magnesium is struck with water. Many vehicle engine blocks contain magnesium, so expect to see this reaction near the engine compartment. When dealing with engine compartment magnesium fires, keep the engine compartment closed as much as possible, apply water from a distance to gain control, and then shut down the line and rapidly coat the engine compartment (motor) with a dry chemical extinguisher. To reiterate, starting your attack from a safe distance may allow you to recognize when magnesium is involved without being too close to a violent reaction.
Firefighters should operate from a proactive stance, not a reactive stance. If we’re being effective, every move we make should continually reduce inherent risks. When things do go wrong, our initial reaction may be reactive in nature, especially if crew or apparatus are in danger and we respond emotionally. This is where remaining calm, cool, and collected prevail.
When a firefighter is on fire or when PPE oversaturates, spraying them with water is often a second nature reaction. While knocking flames down is necessary, avoid using a straight/solid stream at full bail as this can injure the firefighter and can increase thermal damage to skin by compressing hot gear against skin. A wider less intense stream is better. It’s critical to rapidly remove PPE from a firefighter whose gear has become oversaturated to reduce thermal damage. Those removing the gear must be protected so as not to get burned when handling hot gear. Similar to rapid intervention team rescues, there are a number of effective rapid gear doffing techniques crews can practice. Many of these can be found online.
Scene control is essential to any fire operation. When operating at a vehicle fire in the roadway the inherent risks to firefighters are significantly increased, as are opportunities for secondary incidents. Most departments across the United States are familiar with the Traffic Incident Management System (TIMS). Employing TIMS best practices will help reduce roadway hazards to firefighters and others. Use apparatus blocking methods, request PD/Department of Transportation assistance, use traffic cones to gain attention and to create buffer zones, and maintain spotters and good communication to keep members and the public safe and protected. When necessary, call for additional assistance to maintain a safe scene. De-escalate the operation and clear the roadway as soon as reasonably possible.
Vehicle fires can become further complicated if they involve more than one vehicle, unstable circumstances, survivable entrapments, larger vehicles, fuel/oil leaks, hazardous materials, involve gas/electric utilities, and when structures are also involved. A unique situation that occurs from time to time is a trash truck fire. If it is possible to have the vehicle relocate to a relatively empty parking lot or safe area off the roadway, the trash can be dumped from the trash truck so firefighters can extinguish the fire in a safer location. This action may also save the trash truck from catching fire and becoming damaged. Again, partnering with other agencies to train in unknown areas can be beneficial to firefighter preparations, preplanning, and training.
While this article focuses mainly on standard vehicles, it is important for crews to consider other complicating factors and to train to prepare for those challenges before they present themselves. Vehicle fires may occur frequently, but they should never be considered routine. When complacency sets in, fire operations suffer and the inherent risks to firefighters increase by our own doing.
When conditions are controlled, firefighters should give consideration to the environmental hazards vehicle fires can create, from spilled fuel and oil that needs to be absorbed and cleaned up, to protecting storm drains from contaminated water runoff. While protecting the environment is a lower priority for firefighters, it is one of our responsibilities and goes a long way in doing our part and in gaining good public relations.
With regard to vehicle fires, the risks often outweigh the benefits. Vehicles are often a total loss, so care should be taken in our approach and aggressiveness. Smart firefighting should prevail.
The original video post and this article should encourage crews to take time out to review, discuss, and drill on vehicle fire best practices.
NICK J. SALAMEH is a 36 year veteran of the fire service. He was a Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, with which he served 31 years. He is a former Chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee and was a former volunteer firefighter for the Fairfax County, VA Fire and Rescue Department, Bailey’s Crossroads Fire Station 10. Nick is a contributor to Fire Engineering Magazine www.fireengineering.com and Stop Believing Start Knowing (SBSK), https://www.facebook.com/StopBelievingStartKnowing/.