An engine company in northbound lanes directs its stream through the truck`s melted aluminum sides to cool containers of flammable paints and thinners. (Photos by Greg Bunker unless otherwise noted.)


The following incident began as a “routine” vehicle fire. It suddenly escalated into a serious emergency. This incident demonstrates the reasons fires on limited access/elevated highways require specialized alarm assignment, response routes, apparatus positioning, and tactics. This scenario also proves how quickly flammable liquids can turn a small, manageable fire into an inferno, endangering firefighters and civilians. It is a classic example that shows why no vehicle fire should ever be considered “routine.”

At 1730 hours, a single-engine company was dispatched to a reported “truck fire” on Interstate 95–the major north-south corridor along the East Coast. It was rush hour; traffic is bumper-to-bumper under normal conditions. The time of day, the nature of the incident, and the location of the incident–all are essential considerations in the size-up that should be begun at the time the alarm is received.

The time of day is particularly important in urban areas where traffic between a large city and the suburbs moves in a predominate direction in the morning (toward the city) and in the opposite direction (toward the suburbs) in the early evening hours. The flow of traffic can significantly affect your response time and the route you take to the scene. The traffic pattern may prompt a fire company to respond on surface streets, bypassing heavy traffic, and enter the expressway from the opposite, less congested, direction.

Selecting an alternate route to bypass traffic may not be an option for fire companies in rural or suburban areas, where an interstate highway can stretch for several miles without an entrance ramp. Similarly, bridges and long sections of roadway built over water–such as Interstate 10 along the Gulf Coast or the Overseas Highway (US-1) in the Florida Keys–give a company officer little choice concerning how a fire or accident scene should be approached.

Where access is a problem, some fire departments have established automatic mutual-aid agreements with neighboring departments whereby an engine company is routinely dispatched to the scene from the other direction. Unfortunately, in this case, traffic was backed up in both the northbound and southbound lanes.

To compound the problem, the exact location of the fire was unknown, which is quite typical in areas such as South Florida, where virtually every motorist has a cellular phone. Whenever a fire or accident is visible from a major thoroughfare, 911 and fire alarm operators are deluged with car-phone reports of the incident. This is a double-edged sword: Certainly a cell phone caller can report an emergency that might otherwise go unreported for several minutes. The problem is that many motorists calling 911 don`t have a clue as to where they are, let alone the precise location of the incident. Consequently, police, fire, and EMS units often receive vague and conflicting reports concerning an incident`s location, which delays their response. When the exact location of an expressway incident is unknown, it is often better to have all but the first-due company stand by on surface streets to await directions into the scene until after the location has been confirmed. Also, when you do not know whether an incident is in the northbound or southbound/eastbound or westbound lanes, take a moment to scan the overpass prior to committing your company to the expressway. Traffic will be stopped or slow-moving in the vicinity of the incident.


Highway patrol troopers were the first to reach the scene in this incident. They found a rental cargo van pulling an air compressor. A small fire was burning under the cab. Although the fire was small at this point, the troopers recognized that the truck`s position presented a potential hazard. The van was stopped directly on top of an overpass bridge–uphill of oncoming traffic. The troopers` concern was that the truck`s fuel tanks might fail and send a torrent of burning gasoline flowing toward the motorists downhill. Anticipating such an event, the forward-thinking troopers shut down all three southbound lanes of the expressway.

Closing the lanes ultimately turned out to be an excellent decision, but it did create a problem. The troopers were not aware that the engine company was responding in the southbound lanes, which became a giant parking lot. The engine had to maneuver through almost a mile of gridlock.

On arrival, the pumper was spotted uphill of the burning truck and basically upwind. The apparatus was correctly positioned from the standpoint of avoiding a potential spill fire but clearly was dangerously close to a small fire that could suddenly and unexpectedly increase in size and intensity.

This was a dangerous miscalculation and is a common fireground mistake. The apparatus was spotted within range of its “auto fire/garbage line,” 100 feet of 134-inch hose preconnected on the front bumper.

The contents of the truck were initially unknown. There were no placards to indicate the presence of any hazardous cargo. In all probability, they would not be required on a truck of this size. Don`t rely on placards to warn you of the presence of hazardous materials. Keep in mind that except for a few materials (poison gases, water-reactive substances, strong radioactives, and detonating explosives, for example), most hazardous materials do not require placarding in shipments of less than 1,001 pounds. Shipping papers, usually found in a pocket on the driver`s side door, provide more complete information relative to a vehicle`s contents. But a shipment may not be documented, as is frequently the case with small rental trucks, and shipping papers may not be accessible due to fire or toxic conditions. Additionally, don`t count on a truck driver to tell you honestly and accurately what he is hauling. In this incident, the driver assured the fire officer that the truck contained only “water-based paint that doesn`t burn.” Investigators would later learn that the truck was loaded with several containers of flammable paint and lacquer thinner. One of these containers, it is believed, developed a leak and dripped its contents on the truck`s catalytic converter, starting the fire that ensued.

The engine crew, wearing full protective clothing and SCBA, advanced its hoseline toward the truck to extinguish a small fire that appeared to be well within its capabilities. Suddenly the fire intensified. A large spill fire developed under the truck and started running downhill. The first of several explosions was then heard inside the truck. The lieutenant immediately transmitted an urgent request for a full building assignment, which would bring three additional engines, a ladder company, a rescue squad, and a battalion chief to the scene.

Had this fire occurred at a different time or in a different place, this fire company would have withdrawn to a defensive position. This company officer, however, considered the risk to motorists stuck in traffic and a crowd of uncooperative onlookers who couldn`t possibly be evacuated in time. He decided that he had to make a stand, albeit at great risk to his company, to protect civilian life. Prior to the arrival of additional companies, this engine crew fought a difficult and gutsy battle to keep a growing spill fire from flowing toward the motorists stranded in their cars. With no soil around, diking the spill was impossible. A foam attack was not an option because the area of fire involvement–about 2,000 square feet–exceeded the available supply of water and foam concentrate and the flow rate of the foam eductor.

Firefighters positioned the hoseline between the stranded motorists and the advancing fire and managed to stop the fire from spreading downhill by applying a narrow fog stream in short intermittent applications. This tactic was effective but risky. It easily could have made matters worse if the water had not been used sparingly. The flammable paint, being lighter than water and insoluble, will float on the water`s surface and could flow with the water, spreading the fire. The judicious use of water was critical also because the firefighters were operating with only the 500 gallons of water in their booster tank.

One of the engine companies was directed to approach the fire in the northbound lanes. By now, the aluminum sides of the truck`s cargo body had melted, enabling this company to apply a stream to cool the containers of paint and thinner, preventing them from failing and contributing more fuel to the fire.

The remainder of the companies were ordered to locate a hydrant and establish a water supply from the street below. A three-inch hoseline was lowered from the engine on the expressway to provide a continuous supply of water. The overpass was laddered so that the companies could climb up to the expressway.

Conditions began to improve. The spill fire was contained and eventually burned itself out, because the remaining containers in the truck were consumed by the fire or cooled, depriving the fire of fuel.

The incident commander set up for a foam operation, but it would take time to marshal sufficient containers of foam concentrate and rig in-line eductors. Simultaneously, he organized two crews to advance two 134-inch lines to contain, if not extinguish, the fire. These crews were supported by firefighters operating 20-pound dry chemical fire extinguishers. The chief cautioned the crews to use water judiciously. Applying too much water could cause the fire to spread or create another spill fire.

The dual hoseline attack was successful. Small spill fires, running out of the truck`s cargo area and melted plastic fuel tanks, were rapidly suppressed by applying dry chemical. Firefighters used absorbent materials to dike and recover the runoff, and members of the hazardous materials unit assisted county environmental specialists in examining the storm sewers for flammable residue.

After the fire had been extinguished and the hazards mitigated, the incident commander directed his full attention to opening the expressway. Expediting roadway operations to restore the flow of traffic is not just a police matter. A fire officer who closes a major highway without considering its effect on commerce and the welfare of motorists stranded in traffic is not thinking in the best interest of the public he serves. At this incident, the battalion chief had all companies remain on the scene so that all hands could quickly break down hoselines, pick up equipment, and clear debris.


Respond with adequate resources. Although most vehicle fires are handled by one engine company, a single-company response doesn`t provide a tactical reserve for the unexpected difficulties such as those experienced in this incident–an extraordinary amount of fuel, a critical exposure problem, a delayed response, or a limited water supply, for example.

Dispatch an additional apparatus–if for no other reason, so that it could position itself as a barrier between oncoming traffic and personnel operating on the roadway. A company operating on the downward slope of a hill, bridge, or overpass is particularly vulnerable. Motorists traveling at a high rate of speed may have no indication that the road ahead is blocked until they reach the crest of the hill. At that point, they may be too close to avoid hitting apparatus or firefighters. An additional company positioned on the leading slope of a hill can set up flares or traffic cones at a safe distance, giving motorists sufficient time and space to slow down and change lanes.

Preassign responding companies. As mentioned previously, some departments automatically dispatch two engine companies to fires on limited-access highways and have them respond from opposite directions. Other departments assign only the first-due engine to an elevated roadway. All other companies, typically a second engine and a ladder company, remain on surface streets below. The second engine can establish a water supply and, with the assistance of the truck crew, stretch a supply hoseline up a ladder or embankment. Aerial devices with prepiped master-stream nozzles make an excellent improvised standpipe when the truck can ladder the roadway near a vehicle fire. Finally, dropping a supply hoseline down from the engine operating on an elevated roadway is usually easier than hoisting one from below.

Identify water sources and provide access for water supplies. An engine company fighting a vehicle fire on a limited access/elevated highway should seldom rely on its booster tank as the sole source of water. Companies operating on an expressway should know where the closest hydrant is and how to have its water available if it should be needed. Through preplanning, access points to hydrants on the streets below or near the expressway should be identified. Access points should be marked with signs or reflectors on the highway. If necessary, holes to facilitate stretching a supply line up to the expressway should be made in barrier walls or fences.

Expressways that run through residential neighborhoods are often bordered by high concrete sound-barrier walls. The barriers may or may not reduce traffic noise, but they definitely block the view and access to hydrants from the expressway. To provide water supply for an expressway, some departments require that holes be bored in the sound barrier, to allow a hoseline to pass through, and that a marker be posted above each access opening to indicate the surface street on which the hydrant is located. The hydrant marker allows firefighters operating on an expressway to direct an engine to the closest hydrant to the marked access hole without guesswork or delay.

Position apparatus at a safe distance. With the decline in apparatus equipped with booster lines, many engine companies preconnect 50 or 100 feet of 134-inch hose to a running board. New apparatus may come equipped with a front-bumper preconnect. Although the 134-inch hose flows appreciably more water than a booster line, a short “car fire/garbage line” can expose an apparatus positioned too close to a fire. A fire officer must predict how big a fire can become with cautious pessimism and position his apparatus accordingly. Short preconnects are fine for most nonstructural fires but should be deployed only after an officer has carefully considered the potential size of the fire, not just the amount of fire showing on arrival.

Beware of flammable liquids. Any vehicle can contain flammable liquids that can suddenly and unexpectedly intensify a fire. Don`t let the size of a vehicle lull you into complacency. The small cargo van in this incident contained enough flammable liquid to fuel an intense and dangerous fire, putting firefighters and civilians at risk. A can of gasoline stored in the trunk of a burning car can send a company of improperly protected firefighters to the burn center. Many modern vehicles, especially light trucks, are equipped with plastic fuel tanks made of polyethylene or polypropylene. Plastic fuel tanks are lighter and more durable than steel tanks but will melt after a few minutes of flame contact, spilling their contents and causing a sudden, dramatic increase in the fire`s size and intensity.

Back up a hoseline with dry chemical. At virtually every vehicle fire, the company officer or his designee should back up his hoseline crew with a large dry chemical fire extinguisher. Applying dry chemical can rapidly extinguish a flammable liquid fire and the firefighters standing in it. Dry chemical is the only agent that can suppress a running three-dimensional spill fire that results from leaking containers or fuel tanks.

Do not consider any vehicle fire “routine.” Firefighters who fight vehicle fires with a complacent attitude are setting themselves up for a serious injury. Perhaps they have forgotten or never learned that flammable liquids, exploding components, or oncoming traffic–common hazards at vehicle fires–can abruptly end their careers and destroy their quality of life. All firefighters, particularly company officers, must be constantly vigilant of the hidden dangers of vehicle fires and protect themselves by wearing the proper equipment, employing correct tactics, and operating with adequate resources.

Take an active role in recommending the installation of mile markers (indicating tenths of miles) in your area. n

(Top left) This engine company is scrambling to reposition its apparatus on the expressway and protect motorists from a running spill fire with water from its booster tank. The initial small fire under the cab of the cargo van suddenly intensified, involving the van`s cargo of flammable paints. (Bottom left) This company, on a surface street, is checking and flowing a hydrant (extreme left of photo) to supply the company on the expressway with the water it desperately needs. (Bottom right) Fires on limited access/elevated highways require the coordinated efforts of companies on the roadway to fight the fire and on surface streets to establish a continuous water supply. Here, an engine responds against traffic to assist the company on the expressway.

The apparatus was positioned uphill and upwind of the burning truck, but it was dangerously close to a fire that could suddenly intensify. Spot apparatus according to a fire`s potential, not in relation to what is showing when you arrive.

(Top left) A cargo of flammable paint and lacquer thinner suddenly turns a small, manageable fire into an inferno. Beware of flammable liquids. Respond to vehicle fires with sufficient resources to handle such a contingency. Position apparatus at a safe distance and “cover” a hoseline crew with a large dry chemical fire extinguisher. (Top right) Companies advance two 134-inch lines to attack the fire. Use caution when using water on flammable liquids, and understand its limitations. The flammable paint in this fire, lighter than water and insoluble, can float and burn on the water`s surface and cause a spill fire to spread. When fighting a flammable liquid fire, always back up a water line with a large dry chemical extinguisher. (Bottom left) An aerial device provides access to the elevated roadway. A preplumbed master-stream nozzle can be replaced with a gated wye to improvise a standpipe. A three-inch line supplies the engine on the expressway. (Bottom right) Fire is extinguished with a combination of fog streams and dry chemical.

Holes in the sound barrier wall facilitate stretching a supply line onto the expressway. The hydrant marker, posted above the hole, indicates the surface street on which the hydrant is located. Doing this makes it easy for a company on the expressway to direct a company on the surface street to the nearest hydrant. (Photo by Ray Bell.)

BILL GUSTIN is a captain with the Metro-Dade County (FL) Fire Department and a lead instructor in the department`s officer training program. He has taught cruise ship crews firefighting skills, has instructed in Caribbean countries, and was a member of the International Rescue Task Force for the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering.

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