By BRIAN BUTLER
Imagine an engine company staffed with three firefighters arriving at a well-involved vehicle fire at a gas station fuel pump and the mother screaming that her baby is still in the car. Are your three firefighters capable of approaching a burning vehicle at the fuel pump and removing an infant strapped in a rear-facing car seat? What about burning recreational vehicles, food trucks, ambulances, and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) vehicles that present explosion dangers or burning tractor trailers at the pump that may be loaded with diesel fuel (photo 1)?
For many in the fire service, service station fires are high-risk/low-frequency events. That’s half true; they are definitely high risk but not as low frequency as many believe. Hundreds of such fires have occurred in the past few years; many were caught on video and uploaded to YouTube.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the United States had 111,500 gasoline/diesel stations in 2014. This number has most likely increased over the years because of the recent boom in convenience and big-box stores that have added gasoline and diesel-filling stations to their services.
Fires at service stations are dangerous and have the potential for disaster, too. They come with a list of various hazards requiring a caution. Dangers range from flammable liquids (running fuel fires) to LPG, hazardous materials, and burning vehicles at gas pumps or inside of a repair shop. With more than 400,000 service stations in the United States, there’s a long list of potential dangers when these occupancies are burning.
What Is a Service Station?
I define a service station as any station, structure, or attached properties that provide fuel filling, mechanical, or body repair services to a motor vehicle. This covers fueling stations, tire shops, auto repair/body shops, convenience stores with fuel pumps, and even some junkyards or auto dealerships that offer auto repair services (photo 2). Similar occupancies to consider are compressed natural gas (CNG) filling stations and auto parts stores.
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), vehicle fires account for most of the incidents at service stations (61 percent), but structure fires account for the majority of property damage (59 percent). Outside trash or rubbish fires account for 12 percent of the fires reported to local fire departments at this type of property.
Twelve percent of fires reported to local fire departments in these properties were structure fires. The most common items first ignited in structure fires at service stations were flammable and combustible liquids and gases, piping, or filters (22 percent of structure fires); rubbish, trash, or waste (18 percent); and electrical wire or cable insulation (13 percent).
Most vehicle fires (82 percent) occurred in passenger vehicles; these fires accounted for nearly half of the number of civilian injuries that occurred in service station fires of any kind (structure, vehicle, outside, other). The most common type of material first ignited in a vehicle fire was gasoline (28 percent).
A fire involving a vehicle burning inside an auto repair shop is considered a structure fire. A vehicle burning at a gas pump remote from the structure is a vehicle fire with an exposure problem. Both will require at least a box alarm assignment (a structure response).
Apparatus positioning is critical when it comes to fueling station fires. This cannot be stressed enough. For example, when arriving at a vehicle fire at a gas-dispensing area, approach cautiously; park at least 100 to 150 feet away uphill and upwind. If an exposed propane tank is involved, increase that distance.
When positioning the apparatus, consider the possibility of running fuel fires, exposure issues with LPG/CNG tanks and cylinders, long hose stretches, overhead canopies, underground tanks, energized service lines, and wind direction. Have situational awareness and conduct a thorough size-up on approach; scan for hazardous conditions that will influence apparatus placement.
Vehicle Fires at Gas Pumps
Most fires at the gas pumps occur when flammable vapors meet an ignition source. These sources are usually from a lit cigarette, a lighter (arson), or a vehicle crashing into the pumps. These fires can intensify if not controlled early, creating a dangerous environment. Our initial priorities are evacuation and removing occupants from the vehicle. There’s also the potential for injury to bystanders getting pinned against the pump or underneath a vehicle during a crash into the filling area.
There have been many instances where people have panicked during a fire at the pump, have dropped the fuel-dispensing nozzle on the ground, and have run away. Emergency pump shutoffs will stop the flow of fuel coming from those nozzles if activated. The shutoffs are usually on the island in the pump area and have signage, inside the attendant booth, or in the store behind the counter (photo 3). Different states or the authority having jurisdiction may have standards or codes regarding the location of shutoffs. Preplan the gas stations in your response area.
Fire Protection Systems
Gas stations will offer some level of fire protection systems. They may have only an alarm system, fire extinguishers, and an emergency fuel shutoff. Others may have manual or automatic overhead fire suppression systems that will activate if there is a vehicle fire at the pump (photo 4). In general, most gas stations have dry chemical extinguishers and fuel shutoffs near the pumps. Other emergency shutoffs may be by CNG filling stations and propane tanks.
When arriving at a fire near the gas pumps, verify that the emergency pump shutoff has been activated. The station attendant may have already done this, but you can’t depend on that. Our priorities are the rescue of occupants inside of a burning vehicle, evacuating anyone in the danger zone, protecting exposures, determining the type of fire, and selecting the best extinguishing agent. Bring the proper tools and equipment for the job (irons, a hole punch, a seat belt cutter, a dry chem extinguisher, foam).
Do you have a Class A fire (ordinary combustibles), a Class B fire (flammable liquids), or both? A carbon dioxide and an ABC dry chemical fire extinguisher and aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) are best to extinguish a gasoline fire (photo 5). Gas stations should have fire extinguishers near the pumps; they may even have an overhead fire suppression system. Vehicle fires at the pumps can be extinguished conventionally by using water from a handline directed inside the vehicle and engine compartment. If the pump shutoff is activated, it doesn’t matter if the fuel nozzle is still connected to the vehicle or on the ground. The shutoff has not been activated if the fuel is still flowing out of the nozzle. Use a dry chemical fire extinguisher (or foam) for any fuel burning (Class B fire) on the ground near the pumps or under the vehicle. Do not use water on burning gasoline. Applying water with a fog pattern can be used for flammable vapor control, for protection during rescue, and to protect nearby combustible exposures.
Thanks to Hollywood, many people believe that any time a car hits a gas pump, a large explosion will occur because that’s what they see in the movies. These incidents are extremely rare, since there are many safety features built into the gas pumps to prevent such explosions. They include emergency shutoffs, backflow preventers, and shear valves.
Emergency shear valves are installed on fuel-supply lines under the fuel dispensers at grade level to minimize hazards associated with collision or fire at the dispenser. If a collision knocks over or dislodges the dispenser, the top of the valve breaks free at the integral shear groove, activating poppets that shut off the flow of fuel.
Auto Repair and Body Shops
Repair and body shops house fuel storage tanks, numerous vehicles, paints, machinery, tires, acetylene, petroleum, and auto parts. Fires will burn much faster and hotter than the average structure fire. During any interior attack, be aware of mechanic floor pits, elevated hydraulic lifts, increased fire loads, suspended ceilings, storage racks, and (bowstring) lightweight truss construction.
Use caution, and request animal control if you see aggressive guard dogs. This is often overlooked, but guard dogs are common in these types of occupancies to prevent theft, especially in urban area storage, salvage, and junkyards. Over the years, I have met many German shepherds, Akitas, and pit bulls just daring firefighters to cross the property line after cutting an access gate. If guard dogs are present, request animal control or the property owner to control the dog.
For fires in auto repair and body shops, the obvious strategy is big water quickly. Use 2½-inch handlines flowing 200 to 250 gallons per minute and master streams. Open up the garage doors early and protect any exposures. If the shop is heavily secured, take out a few of the garage door windows and direct the stream in the building until the doors or other access points can be opened.
If venting the roof is necessary, try to work from a bucket or an aerial ladder, especially if heavy fire or lightweight construction is present. Most of these structures in urban areas are of noncombustible or ordinary construction and the roof supports are usually unprotected.
Expect any vehicles burning inside the structure to contribute additional hazards such as exploding struts, bumpers, compressed gas inflators, burning magnesium, battery acid, running fuel, and accelerated weakening of roof supports.
A burning vehicle inside the structure on an elevated hydraulic lift directly underneath the roof of the building can be an extremely dangerous situation. Do not underestimate Murphy’s Law (whatever can go wrong will go wrong).
A few years ago, we had a company arrive at a fire in an auto shop with heavy smoke showing. While directing 2½-inch lines inside the garage, firefighters realized the source was a well-involved box truck burning inside in the rear against a loading dock. Inside the truck’s cargo box was a burning vehicle. It was a late-model BMW, the construction of which included magnesium, thermoplastics, carbon fiber, and a plastic gas tank. This, along with nearby tires and a mattress catching fire, produced a large amount of heat and thick black smoke, creating visibility issues for firefighters. The nozzleman, who was a probationary firefighter, did an excellent job locating and extinguishing the fire with an aggressive interior attack. When you have to go interior at an auto body or repair shop, recognize the potential dangers. Nothing about these fires is routine.
When having to go interior at these fires, remain in constant contact with the hoseline in case you need to exit the building in an emergency (e.g., a collapse, low air, an explosion, or a flashover). With auto-related occupancies burning, expect little or zero visibility because of the fire load and burning hydrocarbons involved. It’s easy to get lost or disoriented inside a cluttered auto repair shop (photo 6). Other dangers include falling into mechanic pits under vehicle lifts and getting entangled in storage racks and under work benches.
Some hazmats found at service stations include sulfuric acid, caustic solution, flammable gas, liquid, paints, solvents, parts cleaners, oil, hydraulic fluids, car batteries, cleaners, propane, kerosene, and aerosols. Combined with tires and Class A combustibles, expect the fire to produce a tremendous amount of heat.
Strategy and Tactics
Strategy and tactics will differ between a vehicle fire at the gas pumps and a fire involving vehicles inside a repair shop. For a vehicle fire at the fuel pumps, the priorities are apparatus placement, rescuing any trapped occupants, removing fuel supply (shutoff), and choosing the proper extinguishing agent according to the class of fire.
For a fire in an auto repair shop, focus on getting big water quickly. Securing an adequate water supply and using 2½-inch handlines and master streams are high priorities after life hazards, which are usually reduced after business hours at these occupancies.
Preparing for these fires by conducting fire preplans and scenario-based training gives you an advantage when they happen on your watch (photos 7-10). Incidents involving service stations can activate Murphy’s Law, considering that you have flammable liquids, gases, hazmats, explosives, and civilian and vehicle traffic all within a confined area. Considering these scenarios and visiting the service stations in your response area will make you better prepared in case Murphy visits during your tour.
WWMT.com. “Video shows moments surrounding deadly explosion at gas station.” (January 2017) https://wwmt.com/news/local/video-shows-moments-surrounding-deadly-explosion-at-gas-station.
OPWglobal.com. “Emergency Shear Valves.” https://www.opwglobal.com/products/us/retail-fueling-products/below-ground-products/underground-storage-tank-equipment/emergency-shear-valves.
BRIAN BUTLER is a 22-year fire service veteran and a captain with Trenton (NJ) Fire Department Engine 10. He also has ladder and engine company experience. He’s a member of King of Prussia (PA) Fire Rescue, a rescue technician with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Technical Rescue Task Force (Montgomery County), and a hazmat technician. Butler is a level 2 fire instructor and the owner of Urban Fire Training.