Extrication Zone: Large Vehicle Fire Operations

BY ROBERT CALLAHAN

It’s a warm July weekday afternoon in northwest Louisiana when the portable squawks: “Webster Parish Fire District 7, respond to Interstate 20, MM42 for a tractor trailer on fire. Multiple calls indicate both the cab and the load may be involved at this time.”

For many departments, especially smaller career, combination, and volunteer agencies, a response to potential large vehicle fire operations (LVFO) can pose a myriad of challenges. These challenges can range from resources and apparatus, especially tankers, to insufficient personnel levels and the associated training required to effectively extinguish and manage the event.

I am a member of two adjoining fire districts, roughly 20 miles east of Shreveport, Louisiana. This is a challenge that either one of them—one a combination department and one a volunteer department—could face at any time. Combined, they cover more than 26 miles of Interstate 20, the major east-west truck route through the mid-south. In addition to I-20, the volunteer department, Webster Parish Fire District 7, which operates with 17 members from five stations covering 72 square miles, also covers a major truck north-south route through rural Webster Parish as well as two busy truck stops. The combination department, Bossier Parish Fire District 1, which operates with two administrative employees, six shift employees, and up to 80 volunteers covering almost 200 square miles from seven stations, is also responsible for providing fire protection to Camp Minden, a Louisiana National Guard maintenance and administration facility. The former army ammunition plant also houses the Regional Training Institute, a training facility for National Guard heavy truck drivers, and uses several types of military over-the-road transport vehicles.

Although the combination department has periods of reduced volunteer staffing, we generally will have an initial response level of at least 12 to 15 members during the day and 20 or more during the evening hours for working incidents. Because of an excellent volunteer response, we generally have very few issues with deploying and operating multiple 1¾-inch handlines and performing other needed functions at most large incidents, including large vehicle fires. In addition, there is rapid access to mutual aid from the bordering city of almost 90,000 and smaller single-station departments to the east.

(1) Members of the Haughton (LA) Fire Department operate two 1¾-inch lines on a training fire using a school bus loaded with Class A fuels.
(1) Members of the Haughton (LA) Fire Department operate two 1¾-inch lines on a training fire using a school bus loaded with Class A fuels. The fire was knocked down prior to interior operations with a 2½-inch line equipped with a 7⁄8-inch smooth-bore tip. (Photos by author.)

The problems associated with LVFO are significantly more pronounced at my volunteer agency, since we operate with significantly fewer personnel. After attending the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in 2011, we decided that the response to our limited personnel problem at structure fires would be to implement a transitional attack approach. We developed and implemented procedures and trained members on the use of a 2½-inch line or an apparatus-mounted master stream as the initial line, depending on the structure type, fire conditions, and staffing for working incidents beyond a single room. We saw this shift in tactics as a method of applying a significant amount of water quickly to the seat of the fire with one member before automatic mutual aid from the neighboring small city arrived.

After training on this approach to structure fires, we discovered that it could also have significant value at large vehicle fires where, again, we were looking for a way to apply water rapidly with our minimum staffing.

I’ll begin by saying that not all large vehicle fires represent significant challenges that require operational changes from the “traditional” single-attack-line approach. Everyday engine fires, brake fires, tire fires, and even nonsleeper cab fires can still be handled effectively and safely using traditional single-handline evolutions.

The focus of this article is on fires that involve a significant portion of today’s large vehicles, which are defined as 18-wheelers with large sleeper extensions, tractor trailers, enclosed multivehicle car transporters, buses, recreational vehicles, and large travel trailers. Certainly, other vehicles such as large tandem axle box trucks, construction equipment, and larger military vehicles can be placed in this category as well. These larger vehicles require a new approach that involves the delivery of large amounts of water during the initial stage of fire attack. This approach increases operational effectiveness and also has a significant impact on member safety.

Major Challenges

As senior members, training officers, company officers, and members of the command staff, it is critical that we understand some of the hazards associated with LVFO, as they can influence operational and training-related decisions. Some of the issues posed by these vehicles, such as vehicle construction, are beyond our control, but many of the problems we face in handling large vehicle fires can be solved with new techniques and training.

Modern LVFO generally involve the following significant challenges.

Large Vehicle Construction and Materials

Like structure fires and passenger vehicle fires, large vehicle fires have undergone a transformation that has spurred dramatic and dangerous changes in fire behavior. The changes have occurred in great part because of the significant increase in hydrocarbon-based solid fuels now being used to construct these vehicles. Increased British thermal unit (Btu) production, increased heat release rates, and explosive fire growth have created hotter, more intense fires that easily overwhelm the traditional handline-based initial fire attack. This change in fire behavior is no surprise to those who have been responding to these incidents over the past few years and have witnessed a doubling of the heat being produced in a fraction of the time.

To reduce weight and increase fuel mileage on large vehicles, there has been a transition from steel and metal exterior skins to lightweight plastics. These materials contribute to the increased fire intensity we are experiencing in today’s large vehicle fires.

In addition, the interiors of most large vehicles have had an increase in the amount of highly combustible furnishings. Take a quick look at the interior finish of any tour bus, recreational vehicle, or over-the-road sleeper cab. It’s easy to see why large vehicle fire behavior has undergone significant change over the past several years. The increase in the quantity of the hydrocarbon-based interior furnishings, in tandem with the exterior skin changes, poses significant challenges to any small department’s ability to deliver sufficient water to match the Btus being produced.

(2) Large vehicles, such as this moving van loaded with hydrocarbon-based solid fuels, can and will pose significant extinguishment challenges.
(2) Large vehicles, such as this moving van loaded with hydrocarbon-based solid fuels, can and will pose significant extinguishment challenges.

Not only has the exterior package transitioned, but overall the size of most large vehicles has significantly increased in the past 20 years. Although the size of today’s 18-wheelers, especially those equipped with the much larger sleeper cabs compared to legacy vehicles, dwarfs many of the older vehicles, the increase in vehicle size has been most dramatic with recreational vehicles (RVs) and travel trailers. It’s fair to say that even one of today’s smaller RVs would be fairly sizable when compared with the RVs of 20 years ago. Today’s tandem-axle monsters built on bus and large commercial truck chassis pose fire suppression challenges equal to or, in some cases, greater than those of a well-furnished single-wide mobile home, especially when the flammability of the vehicle’s exterior skin, the liquid fuel load, and the propane tank’s capacity are considered. The fire load increases even more when the vehicle is towing a vehicle, boat, or storage trailer that may also be involved.

Some departments have recognized and adjusted to this new reality, but many others have not and still attempt to use tactics that are more applicable to much smaller models.

Cargos and Loads

Many view the emergence of the big-box store as the primary drivers of the transition to hydrocarbon-based fuels and today’s supercharged structural fire behavior. Obviously, those goods have to be transported to the retail outlets, and, in a similar fashion, this trend has also impacted fires in large vehicles. Not only have we seen this transition in the trucks delivering to big-box stores such as Target and Walmart, but we have seen similar changes in the loads being delivered to mid-size neighborhood discount “Dollar” stores and big-box drug stores.

The transition to hydrocarbon-based residential furniture has also impacted the intensity and speed of the fires found in 18-wheeler moving vans hauling home furnishings. These trailers can easily contain the solid fuel load needed to comfortably furnish a double-wide mobile home or, in some cases, a large site-built structure in a much more compact area.

Auto-carriers, especially those with dual levels, post a most challenging fire load. These trailers can range from the open-rack and soft-sided “Waggoners” style trailers transporting anywhere from eight to 14 vehicles all the way to multivehicle, enclosed carriers transporting high-end sports cars and NASCAR racing trailers.

The multiple “fuel packages” carried by these trailers can easily overwhelm initial resources, especially if exposures are threatened. Additionally, the steel supporting the upper level of any dual-level auto-trailer can weaken and fail when exposed to the high levels of heat created by today’s vehicles, posing significant collapse issues. These dual-level trailers also can create fire access issues to vehicles on the upper level; advanced laddering, hose-handling skills, and increased personnel will be needed to maintain firefighter safety during fire attack operations.

Enclosed single-level racing trailers heading to local or regional race tracks not only may carry a spare or a second car, but they also may carry all the resources needed for the race day including multiple sets of tires, spare body parts, and even high-octane racing fuel.

Trailers carrying natural loads such as sawdust, wood chips, mulch, square or round hay bales, and other related materials can also create significant operational challenges. Fires in these vehicles can generate the need for significant amounts of water, Class A foam, heavy equipment, rehabilitation resources, and relief personnel for extended overhaul operations.

Trailers carrying large amounts of rubber, such as tires, may necessitate the need for additional amounts of Class B foam, specialized hazardous materials resources, and water runoff control operations. These operations may involve significant law enforcement resources for limited evacuations and traffic diversions. They can also have significant environmental impacts and may require air- and water-monitoring capabilities as well as the involvement of state and possibly federal environmental regulatory agencies.

The same issues can also arise with fires in large garbage trucks, which potentially can pose similar overhaul, hazardous materials, runoff, and decontamination issues.

For departments encountering specialized loads and cargos, training should be held to familiarize members with any unique characteristics of the materials and transport vehicles. As some of those materials may require specialized tactics, training, and resources, those needs should be identified before an incident occurs.

One final consideration when discussing loads is the increased size of the diesel tanks found on most over-the-road vehicles. It’s not uncommon to find twin saddle tanks of 100 gallons each, which create the potential for a significant running fuel fire should one or both of the tanks or fuel lines rupture. Responding departments must have the capability to deal with this issue or, at a minimum, know where to get the resources should this occur.

In addition to large diesel tanks, most recreational vehicles and travel trailers contain large propane tanks. You may also find pressurized tanks on large vehicles of all types that are powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG); they are becoming much more common, especially in urban areas. These tanks may be exposed but more likely would be contained within a compartment on the vehicle. Anytime an RV, a trailer, or any other vehicle containing a pressurized gas is well-involved, the incident commander should locate the relief valve and access and cool the tank with a dedicated handline early in the incident.

(3) Tire fires, such as the one pictured here, can still be effectively attacked and managed with a single 1¾- or two-inch hoseline, especially when Class A foam is added.
(3) Tire fires, such as the one pictured here, can still be effectively attacked and managed with a single 1¾- or two-inch hoseline, especially when Class A foam is added.

Experience and Familiarity

Much like commercial building fires, a large vehicle fire response for many departments, especially in smaller departments or departments with limited large vehicle traffic, is an infrequent event. Even in a busy department running hundreds of fires a year, a well-involved vehicle fire may occur only two or three times in a 12-month period. As an example, it has been several years since my volunteer department has responded to a working large vehicle or commercial fire within our district. It is a well-discussed fact that lack of experience with any type of skill or response can make it challenging for personnel to perform safely and effectively. As discussed in many fire service texts, presentations, and articles, the Recognition-Primed Decision Making model allows us to develop a mental “hard drive” or “filing cabinet” we can call on when an incident occurs. This previous experience set gives us a playbook, or a set of previously successful actions, that will guide a member’s decision making and task performance in command and operational roles. When there are no matches because of a lack of previous experiences, the brain scans the hard drive for the closest match, and we often take these actions even if they are not appropriate for the situation.

Unfortunately in slower or smaller departments, when there may not be any previous large vehicle fire experiences or matches, it’s not uncommon for the responders to fall back on the closest match in their “hard drive,” which, in most cases, will be a fire involving a passenger vehicle.

Using passenger car tactics at a large vehicle fire event is similar to firefighters and officers in a slower or smaller department with little or no commercial building fire experience employing residential fire tactics at a commercial building fire response. Not only does this lead to ineffective operations, but it more than likely will cause significant safety issues during the operation.

Often, the issues posed by a lack of LVFO responses are complicated by a lack of LVFO training at the department level. When this occurs, it provides a complete lack of experiences from which to draw, giving the members little, if any, reference if an incident should occur.

The reasons for the lack of training at the department level include a failure to see the need for the training, a lack of resources to conduct hands-on training, a lack of instructor knowledge and experience, and not enough members at drills to conduct the evolutions. In addition, there is a lack of training on the subject at the regional and state levels, making train-the-trainer opportunities for local company and training officers infrequent or nonexistent.

During my research, I found very limited online resources in this subject area and very few references to LVFO in fire service textbooks, which complicates the training issue even further, providing little or no reference materials for instructors.

Resources

As you can tell by now, a significant large vehicle fire incident has the potential to challenge the resources of even a well-staffed small career, combination, or volunteer department. These challenges can include personnel; apparatus; command staff; communications; hazardous materials teams; and disposable resources such as foam and water supply, especially in areas not served by hydrants such as an interstate or limited-access highway. This issue can be especially challenging to urban departments running smaller water tanks not used to operating away from the hydrant system.

For smaller agencies with very limited staffing, these issues become even more significant and can easily and quickly overwhelm their response capabilities. In areas without a well-functioning mutual-aid system, the response needs posed by this type of incident can be extremely difficult to fulfill.

The key to dealing with a significant LVFO in those areas starts with the development of a multiagency or regional response plan. The plan should determine deficiencies and needs, which should be addressed in a preincident response plan. These plans can include LVFO initial, additional alarm, and specialized run or box cards for fire service, government, and private-sector resource contacts, common standard operating procedures (SOPs), incident command structure, and dispatch/communication protocols.

Departments with limited personnel and resources should include on the initial response additional resources such as additional companies or mutual-aid departments for personnel or other needs like water supply or foam.

This can be a major hurdle. In some places, the department culture may still view a large vehicle fire as “just another vehicle fire” and delay the dispatching of additional companies or mutual aid until the first-due companies or the command officer encounters significant fire conditions when arriving on the scene. This mindset creates dangerous conditions for the initial responders, often placing them in unsafe operating conditions created by minimum staffing until additional resources arrive several minutes (or longer in rural areas) after the arrival of the initial companies.

Where there is an identified chronic shortage of staffing, the department needs to be proactive in developing a plan that ensures the early response of enough members to safely and effectively handle the incident. The staffing issues could be attributed to reduced paid staffing or an increased workload that limits the number of companies available in career or combination agencies. In volunteer departments, decreased membership or fluctuations in member availability could lead to this situation.

Regardless of the cause, the leadership needs to understand that the initial resources needed for effective and safe operations at large vehicle fires have significantly increased and they must be willing to change the culture, if needed, to fill those needs.

One additional need that may not be recognized is the designation of a rapid intervention team (RIT). Although not generally considered a necessity for vehicle fires, the hazards posed by LVFO demand that a RIT be available should circumstances rapidly change and create a Mayday or a firefighter rescue situation.

Response and Tactics

How do we adjust our response and tactics? In some departments, the first change needed, as previously discussed, may be an adjustment in the internal culture that views a large vehicle fire as “just another vehicle fire.” This view does not recognize the need to change the tactical approach. This organizational change may start at the top of the organizational chart with the chief and the command staff and filter down through the training staff and district chiefs to the company officers and firefighters. It can also start at the company level—based on “street experience” through issues encountered with previous LVFO or outside training influences such as presentations, classes, and online programs—and filter up the chain of command. This evolution can be effective, but it can also take considerably longer than the top-down model, especially if there is resistance from the top of the command structure. Without the organization’s recognizing the changing nature of large vehicles and LVFO, departments struggling to meet the demands of a large vehicle response will likely continue to struggle.

After the department has accepted the organizational changes needed to deal with the changing nature of LVFO, it must address the operational changes associated with the new tactics. The first step is to develop and deliver training that effectively communicates the reasons behind the tactical shift and the SOPs associated with the transitional approach.

One issue that may arise in conjunction with using a transitional attack is the smaller water tanks, especially tanks of 500 gallons or less, often found on urban, wildland, and some suburban engines. For example, in areas without hydrants, such as interstates or limited-access highways, operating a master stream device for 30 to 45 seconds will leave little water on the initial engine for 1¾-inch hoseline operations. Even if there were a rapid resupply from another 500-gallon engine, water supply operations would be difficult.

Without rapid tanker support, it would be significantly challenging to maintain any type of sustained fire attack. It’s critical that departments identify this challenge in advance and make preincident arrangements for the automatic dispatch of tanker resources when initially dispatching for a possible LVFO.

The initial step will involve the developing of SOPs that indicate the use of heavy streams during the initial phase of the large vehicle fire attack. They will include apparatus-mounted or portable single-inlet master stream devices or 2½-inch handlines before moving to operations using 1¾-inch handlines.

In some places where combination nozzles are used exclusively, this challenge can extend also to using smooth bore tips for transitional operations. These tips provide superior reach, penetration, and flow in comparison with combination nozzles on the initial large flow handline since the bulk stream will not evaporate before reaching the seat of the fire because of its larger droplet size and compact cone. Smooth bore tips also have the advantage of significantly lower flow pressures at the tip, allowing for effective single-firefighter operation, which can be critical when operating with limited personnel.

In departments that use two-inch handlines, the 2½-inch handlines may not be needed as the initial “knockdown line,” as they can flow rates of up to 250 gallons per minute (gpm), especially when using smooth bore tips.

For many departments, moving toward a transitional approach at large vehicle fire incidents can be a challenge because line personnel may view using a standoff or “knockdown line” initially in a negative light and as operating defensively. These tactical changes may create conflict with a department’s tradition of aggressive or offensive operations and may be met with significant resistance.

The change to a transitional approach will necessitate early buy-in from influential officers and members in the department. Departmentwide buy-in will generally take education, training, and persuasion to convince members that the department is not abandoning aggressive operations but is adapting to the dramatic changes in fire behavior.

As previously discussed, many departments will also need to adjust their response assignments. Smaller agencies may need to add additional mutual-aid companies to an already existing automatic-aid plan or assign automatic mutual aid to large vehicle incidents for the first time. This will take planning, coordination, and possibly the development of additional dispatch procedures and training for the communications staff.

As noted, it also may include adding specialized companies, such as Class B foam resources or mutual-aid tankers in departments normally served by hydrants in areas or roadways where hydrants may not exist. Additional emergency medical services (EMS) and command and safety staff may have to be dispatched on the initial alarm to manage the multiple facets of the incident and provide EMS resources for member safety.

Equipment and Apparatus Setup

Effectively attacking large vehicle fires may require some setup and equipment changes. If your department does not carry a preconnected or a dedicated dead load 2½-inch attack line, you will need to load one; deploying and connecting a transitional line from the bed is extremely time-consuming, especially if it will be a single-member operation. A single member’s being able to rapidly deploy the transitional line and get it into operation is probably the most critical element of the large vehicle fire evolution.

If your department already has a preconnected or a dedicated dead load 2½-inch attack line that is 200 feet or longer, consider adding a shorter load that can be deployed by one member in less than one minute. Often, a 200-foot stretch is not required at large vehicle fire incidents, and it will delay getting water on the fire. A significant benefit of this line’s being placed on the apparatus is that it can also be used to implement a single-firefighter rapid-deployment transitional line on structural incidents.

If there is no space to load a second shorter attack line, the driver/operator may be assigned to break the line at the 100-foot mark and connect it to a discharge as the single firefighter deploys the line and positions the nozzle. This function will have to be identified as a training need and be included as part of the driver/operator’s training package.

As previously noted, the smooth bore is the most effective nozzle for LVFO, especially for the 2½-inch transitional line where reach and penetration are required. In most cases, the majority of the water applied by a combination nozzle will evaporate before reaching the seat of the fire, rendering the line ineffective. A combination nozzle can be used, but the nature of the stream will render the line less effective. The same can be said about the tip on the fixed master stream device. The size of the tip should be matched, through flow testing, with the size of the tank-to-pump piping so that an effective stream with sufficient reach can be generated. The ability to flow Class A foam, if available, through the transitional and 1¾-inch lines will greatly increase their effectiveness.

Training

The program should start with cognitive classroom training on the theory behind the transitional concept and the reasons the organization is changing tactics. The members must also be trained on the fireground operations associated with the transitional concept using hands-on drills and scenarios.

Departments that have limited experience with 2½-inch line operations will likely include additional training on the rapid deployment of 2½-inch lines, line positioning skills, and solo-firefighter hose-handling techniques. If smooth bore nozzles are used for the first time, additional time will have to be allocated for training in how to handle and move them.

Pump operators may need refresher training on pumping 2½-inch attack lines and pumping to smooth bore nozzles. In addition, refresher training may be required on pumping master stream devices.

The members will require training on the timing needed to change from the transitional stream, whether it is a master stream or a 2½-inch line, to the 1¾-inch lines, as well as on how to position those lines.

This training can be accomplished through live fire evolutions using large gas-fed fire props or acquiring large vehicles such as school buses and trailers. If a large vehicle is not available for a burn, you can use three or four smaller vehicles lined nose-to-nose. Students will be able to practice the sweeping motion needed with the 2½-inch transitional line and the coordination needed to attack the fire with multiple 1¾-inch attack lines once the fire has been knocked down.

In cases where live fire evolutions cannot be carried out because of a lack of facilities or the unavailability of vehicles, training may involve simulations using department or large vehicles borrowed from local transporters.

As with any training evolutions, the instructors must take time to discuss and demonstrate the skills and evolutions being implemented, especially if they represent a new set of skills. They should then be performed by the students at half speed to allow for coaching and the development of mastery. Once this has been obtained, the students can then perform the task at “real time” speed under realistic conditions. The training should include sufficient time to address issues in procedures or skills that may need correcting.

Members may also require training in the use of tools that are often overlooked and rarely used in structural operations, such as distributing nozzles, that can be used effectively in LVFO.

Additional training may be required in recognizing hazardous materials, handling running flammable liquid fires, and Class A and B foam and tanker operations.

Effectively attacking large vehicle fires requires planning, training, and having the right equipment in the right places on the apparatus. It also may require a change in organizational culture, as well as gentle persuasion by the department’s leadership to win the members over.

To successfully operate at these complex and personnel-intensive incidents, the organization will have to embrace the new nature of these fires and respond with a new respect for today’s LVFO.

Additional Links

Evaluating Vehicle Fire Training Inhalation Hazards

Drill: The Fireground PlaybooK: Vehicle Fire Attack

What Would Yo Do? Vehicle Fire

ROBERT CALLAHAN began his fire service career in 1979. He has served as a firefighter, an instructor, a fire and life safety educator, and an officer in several departments throughout New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Louisiana since 1979. He is a member of Bossier Parish Fire District 1 in Haughton, Louisiana, where he is the training and public education coordinator. He is a volunteer with Webster Parish Fire District 7 and served as a lieutenant with significant responsibilities in public education and training. He is also a contract instructor for the National Fire Academy and an adjunct instructor for LSU Fire Training. He is the trustee of education for the northwest Louisiana F.O.O.L.S chapter.

Robert Callahan will present “Large Vehicle Fire Operations” on April 23, 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m., at FDIC International in Indianapolis.

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