Car Fires: Too Often Taken for Granted

Car Fires: Too Often Taken for Granted


Gene P. Carlson’s Volunteers Corner

Each day across North America, firefighters are dispatched with a message such as this: “Engine 1, a car fire, Aaron Avenue and Kendra Court; a car fire, Engine 1.”

How often are these calls taken for granted and the numerous hazards of a vehicle fire overlooked?

Proper size-up can’t be made until the first company arrives on the scene. But thorough dispatch messages can help prepare the fire companies. Rarely do they include additional information, such as whether the car is in a garage, exposing other vehicles or buildings, or on or under a bridge.

An initial concern is positioning the apparatus. This act alone involves many considerations: The apparatus must be placed where it will be effective, yet safe. To pick the right spot, firefighters must consider terrain, traffic, the contents and construction of the vehicle on fire, and the possibility of fuel tank failure.

For firefighter safety at car fires, full protective clothing—including hoods, gloves, and self-contained breathing apparatus—is a necessity. Far too frequently, firefighters sustain injuries such as burns from hot metal, cuts from broken glass or torn metal, or smoke inhalation. Toxic smoke is present from burning plastic trim, foam padding in seats, synthetic fabrics and carpets, and insulation on wiring. Batteries generate flammable hydrogen gas and are, of course, filled with corrosive sulfuric acid.

Before attacking the fire, responders may have to stabilize the car by chocking the wheels, or by cribbing the body, if the car’s overturned. As soon as possible, the battery should be disconnected and the fuel tank should be cooled, if it’s hot.

Use a large enough hose line: 1 1/2inch at minimum. Depending on involvement and exposures, larger or additional lines could be required.

Position the attack lines safely at the corners or along the side of the car, never at the rear fender wells. This keeps you away from the ends of the fuel tank, because if a tank’s going to fail, it will fail at the seams. Nor should you position lines directly in front of or to the rear of the vehicle; the car could roll, or parts of a pneumatic bumper could explode.

Open the hood carefully, because entrapped hot gases could flash. If the hood release can’t be reached, the grill can be broken and a nozzle inserted.

It’s possible for a batten’ and several other automobile components—headlights, drive shafts, and shock-absorbing bumpers—to explode.

Some contents may also explode, such as ammunition (see “Guns and Bullets in Fires,” page 12 of the April 1988 issue) or a liquefied petroleum gas fuel tank. Be prepared to find anything in the trunk, from ether starting fluid to extra gasoline to aerosol cans.

Trunk fires can be quickly attacked by using a halligan or similar tool to remove a taillight for access or inserting a nozzle through the taillight. This can save time instead of attempting to force the trunk lid.

Some vehicles have structural components made of magnesium. This combustible metal will burn hotter and faster as water is applied, turning the water to steam, and the water will spatter the molten metal. The key here is to apply a lot of water at one time.

Finally, dispel any idea that the cap of a pressurized gasoline tank must be removed; the proper procedure is to cool the gas tank with a straight stream from a safe distance. Several firefighters have been seriously injured trying. Remember, the heated fuel has expanded and is waiting to spew forth, after which it may ignite.

During overhaul, give special attention to upholstered seats, the area under the dash, and any combustibles stored in the trunk. Remember to preserve any evidence of a crime.

Review the hazards of a “simple” car fire during a training session and stress them to new members to avoid injuries. Don’t take that next call for granted and then have to regret it.

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