Lessons Learned at a Tractor Trailer Fire

Article and photos by Brian Stoothoff

Most fire department responses to vehicle fires are limited to passenger vehicles; SUVs, or the occasional recreational vehicle. Tractor trailer fires are usually limited to isolated brake fires. If your jurisdiction has not had a vehicle fire lately that shut down an interstate or busy roadway for more than five hours, here is one case study from which you can learn.


(1) The incident scene.

 00:32:07 Units Responding…

This is the scene that greeted firefighters shortly after arrival at a reported truck fire on the interstate. It happened just after midnight, on Tuesday, October 27, 2009, in Ocala, Florida. Ocala, a city with a population of 54,000, is north central Florida, 85 miles north of Orlando. Heavily traveled interstate I-75 transects the city. Six firefighters initially responded, including one captain and one battalion chief, staffing three vehicles.
The truck driver of the burning vehicle used a cellular phone to call 911. Because of poor reception, dispatchers had difficulty pinpointing an exact location for this incident. A second engine was dispatched when call takers confirmed the location of the incident and realized another engine could get to the call more quickly, since the initial engine had to travel to the next exit several miles down the interstate highway to turn around.
00:40: Dispatch announces the correct location of the incident.
00:46: Engine 4, the first unit, arrives on scene.
Smoke from the burning vehicle could be seen from approximately a half mile away. The first unit on scene, Engine 4, radioed a size-up report. The tractor trailer was parked on the outside shoulder in the southbound direction of travel. Smoke was showing. Flames from a set of the rear tractor tires were visible, as was fire inside the forward portion of the trailer through a small piece of melted aluminum wall. Contact was made with the truck driver, who had exited the vehicle. No placards were visible on the truck. The only written information on the tractor was “CSS,” and, in smaller size print, “Commercial Shuttle Service.” The truck driver informed authorities that the fire began as a brake fire and that the trailer was fully loaded with Styrofoam® drinking cups. The driver had used two fire extinguishers in an unsuccessful attempt to extinguish the fire prior to the fire department’s arrival. The first-arriving unit immediately established command. Heavy, pushing smoke greeted the firefighters as they opened the trailer’s rear doors. Cardboard boxes were stacked to the roof and to the rear doors. Firefighters pulled a 1¾-inch handline to knock down the tire fire and another 1¾-inch line to the rear of the trailer.
00:56 Florida Highway Patrol arrives on scene.
00:57 Battalion 22 arrives on scene and assumes command.
00:58 Public information officer (PIO) is notified, and responds from home.
The first-arriving chief initially had several concerns and obstacles to overcome. If the fire could not be extinguished quickly, water supply would have to be shuttled, since the hydrants were more than 1,000 feet away and inaccessible from this portion of the interstate. Although traffic was light at this time of the morning, it was a huge safety issue. Command notified law enforcement that southbound traffic on the interstate needed to be shut down; fire apparatus placement facilitated the safety of the crews operating. Command asked dispatch to tone out an additional engine company. With law enforcement now blocking traffic and securing the scene, firefighters focused on operations.
00:59 Command requests a third engine company.
01:00 Engine 6, the second engine, arrives on scene.
The first engine company had almost exhausted its tank water when the second engine, Engine 6, arrived. Engine 6 transferred its water supply to Engine 4. Firefighters began the arduous task of manually off-loading the cardboard boxes containing drinking cups to gain access to the fire located further inside the trailer. The truck driver was asked to help disconnect the tractor from the trailer. The goal was to move the tractor to a safer location. Unfortunately, the heat from the fire caused the trailer to lose its structural integrity; the weight made it impossible to drive the tractor away. We established a hoseline to protect the tractor from flame impingement.
01:08 PIO arrives on scene.
 The public information officer arrived 10 minutes after being called in from home. Radio and television stations were notified that all southbound traffic was shut down on the interstate and that it would remain so for quite some time. As the incident progressed, traffic congestion increased significantly.
01:08 Engine 3, the third engine, arrives on scene.
Early into the scenario, the decision was made to use foam concentrate to help extinguish the fire. In addition to the three engines, three additional engine companies were eventually rotated and used to shuttle water to the scene. Firefighters used a K-12 saw to open a section of the sidewall of the trailer. A hose stream was deployed to keep the cargo fire from spreading to the unburned contents and provide an additional access point to offload the cargo. The standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for Ocala Fire Rescue state that Dispatch is to contact the PIO for all incidents of magnitude and for unusual situations. The on-call PIO then notifies the operations chief, following the chain of command. The operations chief was notified and responded to the scene.
The fire department has in its arsenal of firefighting equipment a 1,585-gallon ARFF truck with 200 gallons of foam assigned to the Ocala International Airport. A special call was made to request that the truck be brought to the interstate so that the additional foam could be used to extinguish the fire.
The State of Florida Department of Transportation was contacted.
01:51: Command requests Squad 1 to respond.
01:55: Safety officer responds.
02:04: Squad 1 arrives on scene.  
The squad company provided additional personnel and a fresh supply of air cylinders.
03:15: Command requests heavy equipment.
 Heavy equipment was requested to help offload the trailer’s contents. Two hours later, it still had not arrived, and firefighters continued to offload the contents by hand, a time-consuming process. While some firefighters offloaded the contents, other firefighters opened the cardboard boxes to overhaul the burning product.
Click to Enlarge 
(2) Firefighters cut the side of the trailer with a K-12 saw to gain access to the tightly packed cargo. Flames can be seen behind the silhouetted firefighter inside the trailer.
Scene Safety Is Paramount
Law enforcement voiced its concerns that traffic was backed up for miles. Traffic was being diverted off the interstate highway at an earlier exit onto a service road, and allowed to reenter about two miles farther south of the vehicle fire. Command stood firm in that firefighter safety was paramount, and all southbound lanes remained closed until the fire was extinguished. This was done for three reasons. First, during the operation, engine companies were shuttling water, and hoselines were deployed in the traffic lanes. The second reason traffic was halted was that the offloaded trailer contents spilled onto the roadway even though the cargo was in close proximity to the trailer. Third, although wind conditions were not blowing smoke directly onto the interstate, visibility could have been affected if the wind changed direction.
A safety officer responded. We use a safety officer procedurally at all working fires, vehicle extrications, and unusual incidents to ensure firefighter safety and as an additional resource for command.
The PIO who responded obtained bottled water and refreshments for the exhausted crews after he had made the initial media contacts. Eventually, all personnel on duty this shift would rotate to the scene for relief purposes.

 Click to Enlarge

(3) The ARFF truck is staged after expending its foam supply.

 Fortunately there were no injuries. In retrospect, many things were done right. They include the following: 
  • The incident command system was followed.
  • The first-arriving unit announced a scene size-up.
  • The control of traffic is of paramount importance on roadways, and the interstate was shut down.
  • Look for placards; the crew asked about shipping papers and considered the possibility of hazardous materials when arriving at this vehicle fire.
  • Parking apparatus upwind and uphill is taught in all hazardous materials classes and should be enforced at all potential incidents, even if hazardous materials are not suspected.
  • A safety officer was used to ensure firefighter safety.
  • Keeping the media informed about traffic delays and updating the information for the public is an important function of a department PIO.
  • Whether an assigned safety officer responds or not, don’t forget about providing rehabilitation for firefighters. Incidents of long duration and inclement weather will take its toll on emergency responders.
  • A postincident analysis (critique) was conducted the following shift for all personnel who were on scene. Strategy, tactics, lessons learned, and things that could be improved were all discussed.
 06:19 hours: The last unit left the scene, more than five hours after the initial response.
As an experienced fire officer, I know that there is always one constant: I can learn something from every incident to which I respond. Here are some things that I recognize we could have done better at this tractor trailer fire. As an agency, we will address these issues to improve our performance in the future.
  • Have a list of rehabilitation resources after hours and on weekends (cold and warm beverages, as the season dictates; nourishing snacks; and high-energy food. If your fire department does not have a formal list of business occupancies that are open at 3 a.m. to furnish beverages and refreshments, develop a list and periodically update it. It will save you time in an actual emergency. 
  • Formalize a list of contactors who can supply heavy equipment during and after normal business hours.
  • Know the capacity of your foam supply and where to locate additional foam concentrate. 
  • Follow the following Truck Fire Strategy:                   
  1. Life safety is first. Safety of civilians and firefighters. Shut down the roadway if necessary, and post a look-out with a portable radio to warn of danger.
  2. Approach the scene from uphill and upwind. Use a pair of binoculars from a safe distance looking for placards and hazards before committing apparatus and personnel.
  3. Check with the truck driver for shipping papers or the presence of hazardous materials.
  4. Identify a water source and foam supply, and determine if the fire should be fought defensively.
  5. Be aware of shifting loads or unstable cargo that can fall on firefighters.
  6. Separate the tractor from the trailer early if the fire may not be contained to the trailer.
Brian Stoothoff is a 27-year veteran of Ocala (FL) Fire Rescue. He holds college degrees in fire science, business administration, and emergency medical services. He is the public information officer and the public education officer. He can be reached at bstoothoff@ocalafl.org.

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