By Bill Gustin
Law enforcement agencies report that the theft of gasoline and diesel fuel is a multimillion-dollar business that is rapidly spreading throughout the nation. While thieves are making millions of dollars selling fuel on the black market, they are putting firefighters at great risk by transporting stolen fuel in vehicles that conceal their dangerous and illegal cargo. Sometimes firefighters operate at the greatest risk when they are not aware that they are in danger. This is definitely the case when they respond to what they expect to be a “typical” or “routine” vehicle fire and are totally caught off guard and overwhelmed by a running spill fire involving hundreds of gallons of stolen gasoline.
Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue’s first encounter with an illegal fuel-hauling vehicle occurred about four years ago. Companies responded to a report of an unknown type vehicle on fire at the gas pumps of a convenience store. The first-arriving company, Engine 7, found a minivan that had a small fire in the engine compartment that a civilian had extinguished. Oddly, bystanders told firefighters and police officers that the driver had fled the scene, running at an extremely fast pace. While firefighters were disconnecting the battery and checking under the dashboard for fire extension, they made some very intriguing observations: First, why were there two heavy-duty vehicle batteries wired in series on the floorboard in front of the passenger seat connected to a cable leading to the cargo department (photo 1)? Second, why was there a trap door between the driver and passenger seats that covered a hole that had been cut in the floorboard (photos 2-3)? It appeared to firefighters that the driver of this van had something to hide; otherwise, why were the windshield and driver and passenger side windows so darkly tinted, making it almost impossible to see inside the vehicle? Additionally, why was the view of the van’s cargo compartment blocked by a curtain hanging behind the driver and passenger seats (photo 4), and why were the windows to the cargo compartment painted black? What the van’s owner was trying to conceal inside the van’s cargo compartment were plastic containers holding more than 300 gallons of gasoline, a fuel transfer pump, and a semi-rigid suction hose (photos 5-6). This van was configured to park over an opening a tanker truck driver uses to fill a gas station’s underground tank. The thief would open the trap door in the floorboard, pry open the filler cap, and insert the suction hose. A transfer pump powered by the two batteries in front of the passenger seat would pump the fuel from the underground tank into the plastic containers. Since this was our first experience with an illegal fuel-hauling vehicle, we dismissed it as an isolated incident. We could not have been more wrong.
In another incident, Miami-Dade police arrested a driver of a box truck for credit card fraud. Police officers detected an odor of gasoline, and a Miami-Dade Hazardous Materials engine company was requested to use its meters to check for the presence of gasoline vapors. The truck appeared to be hauling a load of used tires (photo 7). On closer examination, there was just a single stack of tires at the back of the truck. In front of the tires was a false wall (photo 8) that was painted black and had a small door to access the truck’s cargo—four 275-gallon plastic “tote” containers of gasoline connected to piping, valves, and an electric transfer pump (photos 9-12).
In the following months, we heard of other incidents where fire departments in South Florida responded to vehicle fires that rapidly intensified and spread beyond the foam capabilities of structural firefighting apparatus. We know now that we should have been communicating with local law enforcement agencies and neighboring fire departments. Had we talked to each other, we would have learned from our shared experiences that the theft and transport of black market fuel was a problem that was growing larger than anyone could have imagined. Another clue that should have alerted us to a growing problem was that we noticed that gas stations were installing a large hasp of at least ½-inch-thick steel plate over the fill caps for their underground tanks and securing them with two “hockey puck” (hidden shackle) padlocks (photo 13). Unfortunately, it took a near miss to open our eyes to this growing problem.
Early this year, Miami-Dade fire companies responded to a report of an unoccupied van on fire in the parking lot of an apartment complex. The first-arriving engine company found the van with fire showing from a passenger side window and the open driver’s door. The engine’s officer was approached by the 911 caller, who advised him that he was not the owner of the van, had never seen the van before, and had no idea where the driver was. At this point, the crew did not suspect anything more than a typical vehicle fire, and the officer ordered his company to stretch the 100-foot 1¾-inch “front bumper line” commonly deployed for vehicle fires. While his company was stretching the hoseline, the officer began a counterclockwise 360° size-up. During his walk-around, the officer noticed that the windows to the van’s cargo area appeared to be painted black. Suddenly, the fire increased in size and intensity, nearly engulfing two firefighters and overwhelming the engine company. The fire was eventually controlled with the assistance of second-alarm companies and mass application of dry chemical by an airport aircraft and rescue firefighting (ARFF) apparatus special called to the scene.
After this incident, our department arranged a meeting with detectives from the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Economic Crimes Bureau. We learned from the police that pumping fuel from underground tanks, as described in our first encounter, was no longer the most common method of stealing fuel. The police officers told us that it is easier for thieves to steal gasoline and diesel fuel by installing credit card readers, called “skimmers,” on gas station fuel pumps (technically, they are not pumps; they are dispensers). These devices can read a customer’s credit card information that thieves can transfer to counterfeit cards. The skimmer is usually installed out of the sight of the fuel station attendant; the thief blocks his view of a fuel pump or uses a pump remote from the attendant’s field of vision.
In some instances, the attendant also may be involved. The police have arrested gas station attendants who were in collusion with the thieves. The detectives explained that thieves typically install a 12-volt transfer pump connected to a hose that runs from the vehicle’s fuel tank to fill containers in the cargo compartment (photo 14). This was the case with the box truck described previously. Cleverly, this leads people to believe that the thieves are just filling their fuel tank like any normal customer. Fuel thieves have absolutely no consideration for the fire hazards of using electrical wiring and equipment that are not rated to transfer or contain flammable liquids. The detectives told us that it is not uncommon for thieves to operate their transfer pump by twisting two wires together (photo 15).
Detectives took us on a tour of their impound yard, where we saw dozens of vehicles that had been confiscated for stealing fuel and an array of tanks improvised to contain it. They explained how a thief can disguise a heavy load of stolen fuel in a minivan by upgrading the rear suspension. This keeps the vehicle from tilting toward the rear but does not eliminate the bulge in the rear tires under a heavy load (photos 16-17). Another clue officers look for is a van that sways when turning a corner or changing lanes because there are no baffles in their containers. Those clues help police officers identify small vans hauling stolen fuel. Recently, police officers became suspicious when they observed a van with bulging rear tires and windows painted black rocking from front to back and swaying side to side. Their suspicions were confirmed when they noticed a steady stream of gasoline spilling out of the van’s hatchback.
Totes and Boat Fuel Tanks
“Tote” containers, seen previously in box trucks, are used quite commonly to store and transport black market fuel. Totes, also called pallet tanks, intermediate bulk container (IBC) totes, cage totes, and poly totes, are readily available and inexpensive, especially when purchased in used condition. Many industries use them to store and transport products such as liquid soap, firefighting foam concentrate, edible oils, and pesticides. Totes are constructed of high-density polyethylene surrounded by a steel frame and base that facilitate movement by a forklift or pallet jack. They are generally available in 220-, 275-, and 330-gallon capacities. Obviously, these thin plastic containers have no fire resistance and will puncture easily in a collision.
On our tour of the impound yard, we saw a number of pickup trucks with aluminum boat fuel tanks. Police advised that fuel thieves prefer using heavy-duty trucks with dual rear wheels because they are less likely to look like they are carrying a heavy load. In photo 18, this tank, with a “V” contour to fit in the hull of a boat, was inverted and is concealed by the pickup truck’s bed topper. The detectives explained how thieves will also invert the bed of a flatbed truck, fabricate a tank, and then put sod or pallets on top of the tank to give the appearance of legitimate cargo (photo 19).
Illegal Hauling of Fuel: Cues
As in many aspects of firefighting, recognizing a hazard is the first step in avoiding and mitigating it. Following is a summary of “red flags” that could indicate that a vehicle is illegally hauling fuel:
• A curtain or board across the back of the driver’s seat, blocking the view of the cargo compartment.
• A vehicle with windows painted black.
• A minivan or light cargo or passenger van with bulging rear tires.
• The vehicle’s driver cannot be found or was seen running away.
• A strong odor of gasoline or diesel fuel coming from the vehicle.
• Diesel fuel or gasoline leaking from a van’s hatchback or a truck’s cargo doors.
Actions to Take
Firefighters who suspect that they are dealing with a vehicle that is illegally transporting fuel should take the following actions:
• Ensure that the police department is responding if they are not on the scene. The police are essential not just from a law enforcement standpoint but also for traffic control and to assist in evacuation.
• Be prepared for the potential of a three-dimensional running spill fire that can suddenly grow and intensify by doing the following:
— Position fire apparatus upgrade of the suspected vehicle.
— Ensure that apparatus have an escape route for retreat if necessary, preferably facing the direction of exit travel.
— Isolate and deny entry to areas downgrade of the suspected vehicle.
— Evacuate all vehicles and buildings downgrade of the suspected vehicle.
— Realize that water alone will be ineffective in controlling all but a very small amount of burning gasoline or diesel fuel.
— Realize that water can intensify and spread a running spill fire.
— If you direct a hose stream into the cargo area of a truck or passenger compartment of a minivan or SUV and the fire suddenly intensifies and spreads, suspect that the vehicle is carrying an abnormal fuel load and stop applying water directly to the fire.
— Acquire as many large dry chemical fire extinguishers as possible to suppress a running or pressurized fuel vapor fire.
— Be mindful of runoff in terms of where personnel and apparatus are operating and fuel entering storm drains. Request supervisors from utility companies and water and sewer and public works departments.
A detailed examination of firefighting foam is not within the scope of this article, but fire officers should understand the limitations of onboard foam systems and inline foam eductors commonly found on structural fire apparatus. Realize that although the quantity of fuel involved is a critical consideration, it is the area of burning fuel involved in terms of square feet that will determine whether a foam application rate will be sufficient to suppress a fire—for example, an inline foam eductor designed to flow 125 gallons per minute of foam solution will be ineffective on spill fires much larger than 1,200 square feet.
Know your department’s or region’s foam resources, and request them at the first indication that you are contending with fire in an illegal fuel-hauling vehicle. Assets may include a regional foam cache or foam task force, an ARFF apparatus from a local airport, or a specialized foam apparatus from a nearby tank farm or petrochemical facility.
Consider the following tips when fighting any vehicle fire:
A 100-foot front bumper preconnect may be too short, resulting in positioning apparatus too close to the fire. Apparatus should be positioned uphill of a burning vehicle and at an angle to protect firefighters from oncoming traffic. Positioning apparatus so that it is within reach of a 100-foot front bumper preconnect is not a priority.
Be very careful before using a metal-cutting rotary saw. Years ago, veteran firefighters never thought of wearing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) while fighting a car fire. We now know that vehicle fires produce a “witch’s brew” of carcinogens from burning petrochemical-based components. Wearing SCBA will definitely prolong firefighters’ lives, but it takes away their ability to smell gasoline that may be running under a vehicle. If firefighters need to cut open a hood or trunk to overhaul a vehicle fire, they may unknowingly be standing in a pool of water with gasoline floating on its surface, a pool that will ignite from sparks produced from their saw.
Bill Gustin is a 45-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue. He began his fire service career in the Chicago area and is a lead instructor in his department’s Officer Development Program. He teaches tactics and company officer training programs throughout North America. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering and an editorial advisory board member FDIC International.