Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Lord Mountbatten.
By Susan Tamme
The Second Amendment to the constitution of the United States of America protects the rights of individuals to keep and bear arms. State laws will very vary in form, content, and level of restriction of weapon ownership as more and more people across the county choose to be gun owners.
With gun ownership comes the ownership and storage of ammunition and bullets. Although many people are focused solely on the right to own a gun, there is also the ownership and storage of ammunition to consider. Storing ammunition presents an uncalculated danger risk to firefighters at a structure fire.
Recently, crews responded to a structure fire, and the initial information given by the homeowner was that there was an explosion in the oven. The fire was out on arrival and, at first glance, seemed to have been contained to the oven. The captain then cancelled responding units and conducted his investigation, during which he found several boxes of ammunition in the oven. The captain ordered everyone out of the structure, and the bomb squad was requested for removal and disposal of the ammunition.
What is the Risk of Unspent Ammunition/Bullets to Firefighting Crews When Exposed to the Heat of Fire?
Ammunition/bullets are made of a case/jacket or shell which holds all the bullet parts together. The jacket is made of a thin layer of metal, which is usually a copper-tin or copper-zinc alloy that protects the bullet from the barrel of the gun. The case/jacket is designed with a rim so that the extractor on the gun has a place to grip the casing to remove it after it has been fired. A primer is located at the bottom and in the center of the rim and contains approximately one grain of propellant. The propellant is commonly made from lead azide, which is designed to “spark” when struck.
The case surrounds the “core,” which is made of a dense material that aids in penetration once the bullet is fired. This can be made of steel, tungsten, antimony, lead, plastic, or any type of material. Sometimes, a lubricant is included into the core design that is meant to reduce damage to the ammunition during the manufacturing process. Finally, a projectile is located above the core, which is responsible for the penetration of the bullet.
Lastly, there is the gunpowder. All gunpowders are designed to burn quickly to produce rapid expansion of gas in a confined space (e.g., the shell). There are a multitude of powders available in the marketplace.
In a structure fire, the heat produced during the burn activates and causes the bullets to explode; the larger the caliber of the bullet, the more explosive potential.
What Makes a Bullet Deadly?
A bullet becomes deadly when there is force behind the projectile. The force is usually directed through a gun barrel with a straight-on trajectory meant to penetrate.
Let’s consider this scenario: Ammunition/bullets are located in a box in a nightstand during a house fire. The bullet, when heated, will explode, and pieces of the casing—often referred to as shrapnel—will scatter in all directions. In the same scenario, if there is a loaded gun in the nightstand during a house fire, the risk increases because there is a potential for a directed force of the bullet out of the gun chamber.
What Should Firefighters do with Ammunition at the Scene of a Structure Fire?
Firefighters performing extinguishment of a free burning fire may not be aware that the crackling, snapping noises are exploding bullets, especially if they are stored in a drawer or closet. Once the fire is under control and ammunition is discovered during the overhaul process, it may be necessary to contact a local police department bomb squad for disposal.
Sergeant Jarrett Seal of Tampa (FL) Police Department Bomb Squad explained that, “Once cooled, the ammunition may still present a considerable hazard, as the chemical makeup of the original product has changed due to the exposure of heat.” Although the potential of ammunition going off is lowered once cooled, there is still potential for an uncontrolled explosion. You don’t want the bullets to arbitrarily go off.”
A bomb squad wears special gear when handling the unspent bullets. The bullets are transferred to a hardened steel vessel, which is designed for the burning-off of the explosives in a controlled manner in an isolated location. Firefighters should not leave even the smallest amount of ammunition behind after a structure fire, especially after since it has been exposed to heat. The unpredictable nature of the powder could result in another emergency for first responders.
Firefighters need to be aware of ammunition, even when it is not loaded in a gun. Ammunition or bullets may be present in any strength or caliber and in any location in a structure. As firefighters, we are trained to evaluate risk and, with an increased knowledge about bullets added to an increased situational awareness about ammunition, we can ensure that everyone goes home.
Susan Tamme is a 21-year fire service veteran and a district chief with Tampa (FL) Fire Rescue (TFR). She is a fire instructor III in the State of Florida and has a MA in education. Tamme is a member of Florida USAR Task Force 3 and the TFR Hazardous Materials Team. She is an experienced ladder and heavy rescue officer. Tamme represents the Southeast Division as a Trustee of iWomen (International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Service).