By Robert Callahan
Engine 6-1, Engine 6-2, Truck 6-2, Tender 6-5, Tender 6-8, Squad 6-1, EMS 823, and Duty Chief-6: Respond to Interstate 99, mile marker 67, Eastbound, for a report of an RV on fire. Advised RV may be towing a trailer or a car—reports are varying—that may be involved as well. We are getting multiple reports on this fire. We are also toning out Station 8 for Tender 8-7 and Squad 8-3 per SOP.
The location and companies in this message are fictional. However, the occurrence of a large vehicle fire is an everyday possibility for my career and volunteer departments. Every day, together we cover more than 24 miles of Interstate 20 and multiple truck stops. As a captain, lieutenant, training officer, and chief officer serving with several combination and volunteer departments in Bossier and Webster parishes in northwest Louisiana, I expect that I will be functioning as the initial incident commander (IC) at a working large vehicle fire.
As a first-due chief or company officer, you likely train and lead the members of your district or company into a variety of incidents including fires, alarm trips, smoke investigations, motor vehicle accidents, rescues, and hazardous materials incidents. Depending on your department’s location and demographics, the bulk of your fire responses may be structural, brush or wildland, trash, or passenger vehicle or may involve hazardous materials such as flammable liquids or pressurized gases. One incident type you may have rarely (or never) faced is a well-involved large vehicle fire. This article refers to 18-wheelers with large sleeper extensions, tractor-drawn trailers, car carriers, buses, recreational vehicles, and large travel trailers as large vehicles. Vehicles such as large tandem axle box trucks, construction equipment, and larger military vehicles may also be placed in this category.
Large vehicle incidents have been more common in departments that cover interstate highways, recreational areas with significant RV traffic, or shipping hubs; consequently, the members of those departments who do not respond to such sites generally have little related training or previous similar experiences to draw from if such an incidence were to occur in their jurisdictions.
But, changes in technology and commerce, including the proliferation of small- and medium-sized box stores, have increased the odds that large vehicle incidents can occur in virtually any community today, meaning that the company and chief officers of all sizes of fire departments should be prepared and have prepared their members for the eventuality that they will be called to this type of incident.
The increase in the size, changes in their construction materials, and their cargoes have caused these vehicle incidents to become more complex and resource intensive over the past several years.1 Look at the trucks moving through your community. Many are headed for the “big box” stores such as Walmart or Target in larger communities and also for the local “mid box” or “small box” stores such as the local Dollar General or Family Dollar in small-sized towns. Also, let’s not overlook the trucks that bring stock to the larger chain pharmacies that in many cases have become the local convenience store and those containing hydrocarbon-based loads of furniture, bedding, tires, auto parts, mulch, hay, cigarettes, and countless other fast-burning products.
There has been a tremendous shift in the construction materials of today’s trucks, tour buses, recreational vehicles, and campers. Instead of using steel or lightweight metal as exterior skins, as in the past, most of these vehicles now use a hydrocarbon-based lightweight plastic, which reduces weight and increases fuel mileage. The vehicles’ outer skin is a significant component of the vehicle’s fuel package, increasing not only the British thermal units (BTUs) produced by the fire but also dramatically increasing the pace of the fire’s growth. In addition, these vehicles have hydrocarbon-based interiors, which significantly increase the amount of highly combustible hydrocarbon-based interior fuels.
These fires will burn hotter and faster than past large vehicle fires. They necessitate a higher level of training; additional personnel; an increased water flow; stronger command presence; and a different set of tactics than that used 15 or 20 years ago, especially if your department is challenged by limited staffing on the initial assignment. In addition, hazardous materials operations are an important component of these incidents; this topic is not addressed here. It is complex and is better treated as a standalone discussion. Nevertheless, it is crucial that the first-due officer have the skills to identify and manage the initial phases of large vehicle incidents involving hazardous cargos and loads.
The most basic and most critical role of the initial-arriving officer should be completed before an incident occurs: It is to deliver and manage preincident company training. Not all large vehicle fires necessitate significant changes in operations from the “traditional” single-attack-line approach. Everyday engine fires, brake fires, tire fires, and even nonsleeper cab fires can be handled effectively and safely using single-handline evolutions. These bread-and-butter fires can likely still be handled by a well-trained four- or five-member crew with a single line and a 500- to 750-gallon booster tank, possibly with a second engine or tanker to provide a few additional members for overhaul and a few more gallons of water, especially if the department has a solid response time. If your department has adopted the use of Class A foam, either through a proportioned-based or a compressed air foam system (CAFS), the onboard water will be used more effectively.
As the company or chief officer, keep in mind that previous successful experiences or evolutions drive much of what we do on the fireground and that we draw from these past actions to respond to the circumstances we are facing—in other words, we engage in recognition primed decision making. Therefore, it is up to you to ensure that your members’ training includes having completed a task successfully several times so that they will be able to retrieve that information when they are faced with a similar experience. This skill is especially important when that type of incident is not common in your response area. If the crews have been thoroughly trained so they can recall from their experience tactics for a large vehicle fire, for example, they may be far less likely to employ tactics they used for yesteryear’s much less dangerous vehicle fire. Doing this would be like trying to extinguish a commercial structural fire with the same resources and plan used for a residential fire. You will be understaffed and short of resources.
Most departments do not respond to enough large vehicle fires to provide members with adequate real-world experience. They could have their training division or an outside agency conduct realistic live-fire, large vehicle training evolutions. Often, however, departments do not have the funds or facilities for such training. The next best option would be multicompany full speed nonlive-fire training simulations, which can be effective in building a limited experience base if members wear full personal protective equipment (PPE) including self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), use realistic tactics and relevant skills, and move at the speed expected at an actual event. You can supplement this training with in-station whiteboard or tabletop scenarios and the studying of videos of successful and unsuccessful large vehicle fire events on the Internet.
The manipulative or skill-training components should include the transitional attack (discussed below), master stream operations, the deployment and handling of 2½-inch lines, the use of smooth bore nozzles, and multistream coordinated attack operations. In addition, crews should be trained in the overhaul of large vehicles. Certainly, it would be easier to provide this training in a fully or partially paid department where the crew assignments are constant and a series of progressive-skill training sessions or drills can be used over a series of shifts. In a larger department, the training officer or training division may develop a set curriculum or lesson plans and outside drill guides for the engine company officer to follow. In smaller career departments, the training may be left to the officer or the officers on each shift. The volunteer company officer will find it more challenging to schedule the training because it is unlikely that all members will be able to attend every training session; there will have to be “makeup” sessions.
One example of a challenging large vehicle incident is one involving an auto carrier, which has multiple fuel packages that may be involved. You will have to handle the cab, trailer tires, and each of the involved vehicles as a separate fuel package. This will necessitate a significant initial punch from the master stream or the transitional line to darken down the fire and using multiple 1½- or 1¾-inch handlines to finish suppressing the fire. This type of fire is personnel intensive, needs a significant water supply, and involves a significant number of safety hazards. There is also the possibility of a structural collapse as the carrier’s steel frame becomes significantly weakened, which could lead to the vehicles moving or falling off the carrier onto the members. The initial IC should treat any large vehicle fire as a rolling structure fire, as it will behave in the very same way in terms of fire behavior and rapid fire growth.
On the Scene: The Initial IC’s Role
The first-in officer should immediately establish command. If you are that officer, you would be responsible for completing or planning the following:
Size-up. Perform a windshield size-up and transmit it to dispatch. Include environmental issues such as wind direction that will affect the incident, possible hazardous materials, immediate operational hazards posed by the vehicles or the cargos, and your initial impression of the fire conditions. Ensure that the driver has positioned the apparatus for safe highway operations; an effective fire attack; and, in the case of a tender shuttle, water supply.
A 360° report of the scene. Conduct it as soon as possible after arrival in preparation for setting the strategic and tactical direction for incoming crews. Realistically assess the incident’s potential and the resources responding vs. the actual needs based on circumstances. If there is a need for additional resources, call for additional interdepartmental firefighters, emergency medical services, or specialized companies or mutual aid.
Transmit to dispatch and all responding units a post-360° incident report that identifies the type of vehicle involved, the cargo, the extent of the fire, any hazardous materials, actions being taken, actions that incoming units need to take, and any additional resources that may be required.
Note: Engine company officers functioning as the initial IC will have to step away from hands-on suppression activities and focus on scene setup and managing the incoming companies. This may limit initial firefighting to a single handline or the master stream, but the operation will be better organized and safer.
Rescue operations. Immediately identify the potential need for rescue operations, especially if a bus is involved, as its occupants may include small children, the disabled, or older occupants with medical or mobility challenges that would delay or prevent their escape prior to fire department arrival. If a potential rescue situation is identified, assign the next-due companies to this task and to dispatching additional ambulances and EMS command and support resources for medical treatment and transport. If rescue is needed and has not been factored into the initial assignment, you will likely have to request additional firefighting companies for suppression operations to replace those now handling rescue operations. Anticipate the fire growth that will occur during this delay in suppression activities when making this request. It is important that patient access and removal challenges posed by the cramped seats, narrow aisles, and high windows on most buses and small or irregularly positioned windows on recreational vehicles and campers be addressed through preplanning and hands-on training prior to the incident.
Keep in mind that rescue operations will leave the members physically exhausted and they may need additional rehabilitation time before they can be reassigned, which may mean dispatching additional companies to replace those in rescue rehab.
Exposures. Evaluate within the first minute or two on scene any threatened exposures, including other vehicles, structures, bridges, overpasses, and brush; establish radio frequencies for tactical operations and traffic control; and address apparatus access and EMS egress with law enforcement.
Safety. If a safety officer has not been designated, it will be the company officer’s responsibility to ensure that all members are operating in full PPE with SCBA. All hazards identified by the IC during the size-up process should be communicated to all members responding as soon as they arrive on the fireground.
Fire attack. Implement the appropriate tactics. Using a traditional 1½- or 1¾-inch handline to apply water to a working fire in a large vehicle initially will often prove inadequate because of the increased BTU production and the advanced state of the fire on arrival. It is critical that your preincident training covered when to employ a transitional attack and how to implement it with your apparatus, booster tank size, hose loads, and personnel assigned to your crew or your first-in company. Transitional attack operations involve initially applying 500 or more gallons per minute (gpm) from truck-mounted master streams or 250 to 300 gpm from 2½- or three-inch handlines to darken down the fire while second- and third-due companies are stretching, positioning, and placing into operation 1½- or 1¾-inch handlines. When practiced often and at a realistic pace, this technique can be very effective in setting the stage for a successful suppression operation. In most cases, you will have to operate the transitional line only for a limited time, usually less than 30 to 45 seconds, to effectively knock down the main body of fire. Typically, this means the initial phase of the transitional fire attack will use less than 250 gallons of water with the master stream and about 125 gallons with the 2½-inch handline. This generally will leave enough water in the booster tank to mount an effective follow-up fire attack with smaller handlines, especially if the department operates engines with booster tanks of 750 gallons or greater.
Urban and suburban departments operating engine companies with a 500-gallon water tank will be especially challenged by these incidents, especially if they are not operating in areas where a supply line can be laid from the first-due engine to a hydrant. Even in these situations, the effective use of the transitional line can leave sufficient water in the tank for a 1¾-inch handline for the two to three minutes that it may take for the second-due engine to arrive. A wild card in this formula is the use of two-inch attack lines. This line has proven successful, especially when combined with smooth bore nozzles, as it is able to provide flows equal or superior to the 2½-inch handline, and the line is far more mobile. You can use traditional handlines after the fire has been darkened down by the master stream or a high-flow initial line. Multiple lines may be needed in some cases, especially when tractor-trailers are involved. In this case, smaller departments often will have to use multiple mutual-aid resources.
Water supply. In areas where hydrants are available, you may have the first- or second-due engine lay a supply line from a hydrant. In areas where hydrants are not available, such as interstates, limited-access highways, and rural areas, dispatch multiple tenders or establish a water-shuttle operation. Rural departments generally have these resources in-house, and they are initially assigned on the run or through mutual aid. Urban and suburban departments may need to call on departments not typically on their run cards for these resources. Pump operators/engineers in urban or suburban departments that typically do not operate with tankers will need additional training in drafting from portable ponds, nurse operations, and water-shuttle hydraulics.
A recent example of this occurred with my full-time fire district when the Bossier City Fire Department, which operates with typical urban booster tanks, requested us to respond with tankers to a fully involved large vehicle on Interstate 20 at the city-parish line.
Personnel. Ideally, preplan these incidents so that an increased response is automatic. In small career and volunteer departments with limited personnel, dispatch automatic mutual aid for personnel, water supply, rescue, support, command, and apparatus requirements. Having volunteer resources respond with career departments on the initial alarm on limited-access highways or in outlying areas may pose some cultural, communications, and operational challenges that should be addressed through preplanning and training.
If a rapid intervention team (RIT) is not assigned on the initial response and you encounter a working fire on arrival, strongly consider dispatching a dedicated RIT. Although outside of the normal vehicle fire response, a RIT should be put in place if interior rescue or firefighting operations are being conducted in buses and RVs. These vehicles pose significant entrapment, entanglement, air management, and egress hazards for members operating inside that necessitate firefighter rescue resources.
Overhaul operations. In departments that do not use dedicated truck companies, the engine companies will likely conduct the overhaul operations. The tight spaces and often packed loads of an over-the-road box trailer may pose significant challenges.
A prime example of this occurred when my full-time fire district responded to an 18-wheeler full of cigarettes, requiring a significant overhaul operation. The same situation will occur with trucks transporting materials such as hay, sawdust, mulch, or wood chips. Many of the skills needed can be addressed through normally scheduled training, but rarely used skills, such as saw operations, may need to be addressed in a specific training program targeted for large vehicle fires.
In some cases, you may need large-flow Class A foam lines and heavy equipment to assist in overhaul and additional personnel to supplement the firefighters initially on scene. In addition, piercing nozzles can deliver water to tight spaces or the inside of shipping boxes without having to open each package individually.
It’s critical that today’s first-in chief and engine company officers understand the changes in fire dynamics associated with large vehicle fires and communicate them to personnel. It’s also critical that they understand the value of the transitional attack and train their crew in its implementation. It’s up to the first-in boss to train the crew for operating at these fires as well as to make the right decisions for the situation.
1. See “Large Vehicle Fire Operations,” Fire Engineering, March 2015.
ROBERT CALLAHAN is a captain/fire prevention officer with Bossier Parish Fire District 1, Haughton, Louisiana. He is a captain and the training officer for Webster Parish Fire District 7 and is assistant chief of Webster Fire District 3. He is a contract instructor for the National Fire Academy and an adjunct instructor for Louisiana State University Fire Training. He is the trustee of education for the Brothers of the Boot F.O.O.L.S.