By Michael N. Ciampo
Now that the summer is in full swing and we’ve all experienced trying to get out of our sweaty bunker gear, many of us are wishing for an early fall. As is the case for so many, our responses to the traditional summer emergencies are upon us. At some of these events, we wish we could get a “do-over,” but now that they’re behind us we can’t. Hopefully, we’ve learned from the experiences and we’ve honed our skills or drilled on what went wrong or what we could have done better.
Responding to a barbecue grill fire at a private dwelling had many of us contemplating what we would encounter. Normally there are a few situations that typically happen at these fires: A grease fire occurs in the bottom of the unit or in its drip pan, and we normally can handle it by shutting off the gas supply valve and using a dry chemical extinguisher (water and grease DON’T mix); hot coals were dropped on a deck or on the ground, igniting some of the surroundings (a water extinguisher may be able to handle these incidents); the supply line from the liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) tank has a hole in it or is defective and is expelling flames (shut off the supply valve); flames are escaping directly from the tank’s supply valve because the connection is cross threaded or on loosely or there is a regulator failure or flames are coming from both the supply valve and the relief valve (in this case, you often hear a whistling sound as the gas is expelled and burning, a clue to be prepared to go into full firefighting mode!).
Arriving on scene, a police officer came running from the rear of the home with a discharged dry chemical extinguisher, yelling, “Hurry!” The engine established a water supply and stretched the first hoseline with a combination nozzle on it, which allowed us to adjust the fog pattern from a narrow to wide setting. As members stretched the line, they flaked it out in the side yard next to the house. The house was being used for protection until an accurate size-up was made of how the tank was burning. [Remember, a boiling-liquid, expanding-vapor explosion (BLEVE) could occur at these incidents, and the tank could become a projectile and send shrapnel flying in many directions.]
The officer who was also at the edge of the home immediately called for a second hoseline to be stretched and let the incoming units know that the fire was now increasing in severity, as the siding of the house was beginning to melt and ignite. The gas grill was about four feet from the house, and the tank was emitting flames from its supply valve; luckily, the relief valve hadn’t engaged yet. The initial plan of action was to approach the tank from an angle or perpendicular to the valves with the initial hoseline directing a narrow fog onto the tank. Prior to rushing forward with the line and quickly attempting to shut the supply valve, cool the tank for a short time to reduce the vapor pressure inside the tank. Make sure you don’t approach directly in line with either of the valves—this ensures that if the relief valve opens it won’t hit you with fierce flame impingement. If the relief valve opens and emits flames, cool the tank to reduce the vapor pressure; once the pressure is reduced, the relief valve should close, eliminating one source of flames. Luckily for us, the grill wasn’t on a deck and the tank was exposed and secured in its mounting bracket. There have been instances when the tank was unsecured and it tilted or the supply line burned through and the tank rolled away when the hose stream contacted it.
When members approached with the hoseline, the narrow fog pattern was able to maintain its primary job of cooling the tank in hopes of reducing the chances of a BLEVE or the relief valve opening. Remember, the main focus of this hoseline is to COOL the tank and NOT to extinguish the escaping flames (LPG has a large expansion ratio and is heavier than air). Our objective at this type of incident is as follows: As the hoseline approaches the tank, a firefighter in full protective equipment attempts to shut the LPG’s control valve and stop the flow of gas from the tank, eliminating the fire. Initially, when the first hoseline began its attack, the line made a quick sweep on the home’s siding to extinguish it and to prevent it or the insulation boards under it from igniting further. The second hoseline was then directed to wash down the siding and extinguish any visible flames to prevent the fire from melting the vinyl soffit and extending into the attic. You can also use the second line to back up the first line or advance side by side with a fog pattern; the firefighter who is going to shut the tank’s valve can control both lines’ advance and stand in the “arc” of the two as he shuts the valve. In instances where the fire has control of the siding or is impinging on the soffit, immediately stretch another hoseline to the dwelling to extinguish any fire that has extended inside.
As the line cooled the tank, the firefighter was able to shut the supply valve (turn it to the right), stopping the flames. If the handle has melted away, you will need a vise grip or pliers to shut the valve. Sometimes this may be difficult to do, and it may be easier to continue to cool the tank and let the product burn off. Also, prior to concluding operations, check the tank with a combustible gas meter to ensure it is not still leaking. Let’s not get burned at our next LPG grill fire!
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 26-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.