Responding to a report of an auto fire is nothing unusual for any unit, but when it’s reported to be on a major bridge, the size-up process takes on a whole new meaning. Plus, if you’re not responding using your normal response route, things can get tricky. To avoid confusion, contact the dispatcher, inform him of your access route, and let him relay that to the other responding units. Doing so could curtail a surprise meeting of fire apparatus at an intersection, an entrance ramp, or a spot where you wonder, “What are they doing here?”
As we approached the location, we could see a large column of black smoke in the sky, and we knew we were facing more than an overheated auto. Making the turn onto the bridge, we noticed the auto was on the entrance ramp and not on the actual bridge; we wouldn’t have to rely on the bridge’s auxiliary fire protection standpipe system and could use nearby hydrants instead. Our first glimpse of the vehicle on fire surprised us: a large recreational vehicle (RV) camper pulling a small sport utility vehicle behind it. The RV was already heavily involved in fire, and the police notified us that everyone was accounted for and uninjured. The police also shut down the highway, which was going to prohibit the normally assigned engine from arriving or cause it to be seriously delayed. Luckily for us, the bridge authority’s engine/tanker was pulling up to the scene from the opposite direction. Realizing the magnitude of the fire and the threat of the RV’s propane cylinder safety valve releasing or a possible boiling-liquid, expanding-vapor explosion (BLEVE) occurring, we made the decision to stretch off that rig.
The crew chief asked us to pull the foam crosslay line, and with all the different fuels and fiberglass burning, we weren’t going to argue. Pulling the three long ears of the crosslay after the nozzle firefighter took the top three folds quickly deployed the line. The other company members flaked out the remaining hose, and the line was ready to be charged. All of a sudden, we heard a loud “boom!” followed by another, which made us all stop dead in our tracks. The vehicle’s tires had already blown, so what was that noise? We decided to first quickly douse the vehicle interior with our line to try and knock down some of the roaring fire. Other responding engines arrived and began to stretch another hoseline, while a third line was being stretched off the bridge authority’s rig.
As we used the initial line to try to knock down the fire and cool the vehicle undercarriage, where we thought the propane cylinder was, we began to hear a loud hissing and whistling sound. It quickly got louder and sounded like someone fully opened an air bottle. Then we spotted flames shooting out like a blowtorch from the RV on the opposite side of the vehicle up against the concrete retaining wall. A line was now operating down that side of the vehicle to cool the area down and get water on the cylinder.
As this was being done, all three lines were in service and knocking down this fire. Because the rear of the RV had no windows and the fire couldn’t be extinguished in the rear section, it was decided to enter the vehicle and put the fire out. The blowtorch conditions from the propane tank had stopped, so we felt it was okay to enter. The exterior streams couldn’t get water in the rear because of the vehicle’s narrow hallway and because much of its cabinetry had melted or fallen, blocking access.
As a crew of two began to enter, another team had accessed the vehicle’s propane storage compartment and was directing a stream on it to keep it cool. The interior forces were doing well, but as they proceeded to the rear, one of the member’s boots went right through the burned-out floor. Luckily, he didn’t get injured; a cabinet door was thrown over the hole in the floor. The fire was finally extinguished, but members wearing self-contained breathing apparatus had to perform a thorough overhaul inside the vehicle. While washing down the melted fiberglass siding and forcing open some other melted compartment doors, we spotted a few one-pound stovetop propane cylinders. We didn’t recognize what they were at first because they were split open and looked like metal shrapnel. They were most likely the cause of the loud “booms.”
Over the past year, we’ve had two similar incidents involving RV fires in our area; this one was the easy one because it was outside. The other was on the approach to the bridge but in a tunneled section. At that fire, the metal ceiling was collapsing and melting on our arrival. We deployed similar tactics (using the reach of the hose stream) to cool, extinguish, and prevent a BLEVE and were successful.
Here are a few considerations for these incidents:
- You may have to shut down the entire highway for overall safety or to stretch the attack or supply hoselines.
- Cool down the vehicle and propane tank from a distance; you may have to use master streams.
- Establish a positive water source.
- Be prepared to evacuate the surrounding area.
- Know the location of auxiliary fire protection systems (dry standpipes, hydrants, and fire pumps) at bridges, tunnels, and complexes.
- Call for a hazardous materials unit response for assistance.
- You may need power tools such as reciprocating saws, rotary saws, and extrication cutters to overhaul the vehicle.
Finally, don’t be surprised if you show up as a truck company and you end up initially doing engine work. These fires can take off quickly and be recreational challenges.
For related video go to http://bcove.me/mlpsi4ef
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 31-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladder chapter and co-authored the Ventilation chapter for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.
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