National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System: Auto Accidents and Air Bags

Auto fires are sometimes the type of call that will lead us down the road of complacency. They may not seem like much, but have the potential to injure or even kill firefighters that are not prepared for the unforeseen dangers. It is extremely important that we always wear our full PPE even when we are “mopping up” the auto fire. You should never let your guard down simply because the fire has been controlled and just like in structural firefighting, overhaul of a vehicle fire should be done with caution. Do not assume that just because the fire was confined to the engine compartment that the fire has not adversely affected components of the car in different locations. As you read this featured firefighter near-miss report, think about what discussions you have had in your organization regarding your approach to auto fires and other related auto emergencies.

“Our engine company with three personnel responded to a report of a vehicle on fire. Upon arrival, they found a 2005 pick-up truck with a well involved engine compartment fire. There were no occupants and no extension into the passenger compartment. The fire was quickly extinguished with a 1.75 inch handline. Approximately 3-5 minutes after extinguishment, while making entry into the engine compartment, the passenger-side airbag forcefully deployed and broke the windshield. Fortunately, no firefighters were near the airbag and an injury was avoided.”

Today’s vehicles pose many new dangers for emergency responders. Advanced technology has made its way into the vehicles we drive. From dual inflator airbags to vehicles with an excess of 500 volts, automakers are making huge strides in vehicle safety for the occupants that drive them. The very technology that is used to save occupants can place firefighters and EMS providers in harm’s way. We must deploy simple and “practiced” strategies to keep ourselves safe when dealing with auto fires and other related auto emergencies. We must consider the auto as an IDLH atmosphere and use the same diligence as other hazardous conditions. Something as simple as the use of the “5-10-20 rule” when operating around airbags can help reduce errors and keep us safe. The rule states to keep a minimum five inches away from side airbags, 10 inches from driver side airbags, and 20 inches from passenger side airbags.

In addition, there has been an increase in the number of electric and hybrid vehicles on the roads. Firefighters/EMTs need to be prepared to respond to incidents involving these vehicles. Many resources are available to responders including NFPA’s Electric Vehicle Safety Training Web site and the IAFC’s free Hydrogen Response Considerations online course.

Discussion Questions:

Each year there are approximately 400,000 vehicle fires in the United States. Most of these events are handled by a single engine company and possibly an EMS unit. The hazards associated with these incidents are among our most dangerous responses. The focus on vehicle fire safety has concentrated primarily on pressurized vessels in the engine compartment, tires and low speed impact bumpers. We need to continually remember the other hazards like airbags and pressurized and non-pressurized containers that may be found in the passenger compartment and trunk. This week’s ROTW REWIND focuses on this new safety hazard. After reading this report, consider the following:

  1. What is the “safe angle of approach” to a vehicle fire?
  2. What is the appropriate level of PPE needed for fighting vehicle fires?
  3. What is the minimum size attack line and gpm flow for a vehicle fire?
  4. List all the hazards you can think of when it comes to fighting a vehicle fire. What steps do you take to mitigate them?
  5. Given the circumstances surrounding this incident, when is the vehicle fire scene “safe”?

Submit your report to today on a similar call you have run. For more on the value of firefighter near-miss reporting, CLICK HERE.

Note: The questions posed by the reviewers are designed to generate discussion and thought in the name of promoting firefighter safety. They are not intended to pass judgment on the actions and performance of individuals in the reports.

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