Unique car fire hazards to address in firefighter training
Car fires that ignite in glass-enclosed and mixed-use structures pose enhanced challenges for fire crews
It is not unusual for a fire department to face a residential structure fire that started in an attached garage, perhaps from a car fire, and spread into the home itself.
I can recall a few years ago having such a fire where the garage area, including the car, was fully involved on our arrival, with heavy smoke pushing from the eaves of a two-story house.
The first-due engine secured a water supply and extended a 1¾-inch hoseline to the open garage bay and began applying water to the fire. Following our standard operating guidelines, the second engine also secured a separate water source, and I requested that the crew pull a 2½-inch line to attack the garage fire, while moving another 1¾-inch line into the structure to stop any further extension.
The ladder crew conducted both an initial search of the structure and secured the utilities.
Afterward, we huddled for a brief after-action gathering where we discussed the fact that the combination of a well-involved vehicle fire in a garage, plus an undoubtedly heavy fire load (i.e., lawnmower, gasoline cans, motor oil, storage boxes) required one or more large-caliber lines to overcome the BTUs for knockdown and extinguishment.
Playing the “what if” game with car fire hazards
Fast forward to today. In the last decade, automobiles of all makes and models have developed crash zones that better protect the occupants and reduce the weight of the vehicle for greater fuel efficiency. The result is that the average 2020 model car has more than 50% of its components made of plastic instead of metal. This includes everything from bumpers and exterior door panels to the interior finish of the vehicle. It is estimated that the average mid-size car now has nearly 800 pounds of plastic.
This increase in plastic also means that most well-developed car fires now give off an even higher rate of BTUs and black smoke than before, hence the need to approach every car fire in full PPE, including SCBA.
Which leads to my next thought. I like to play the “what if” game, that is, “What if this building caught fire today, how would I fight it?”
I recently had two occasions to consider this question.
1. Car vending machine structure
While traveling on an interstate highway, I saw an impressive glass-enclosed tower of cars displayed by a national company that advertises that you can order your car online and they will deliver it to your door – or you can come to their car tower, insert a specific coin and watch your car automatically descend to the ground, ready for you to drive away – essentially a car vending machine.
My first thought: How would I fight a fire in this glass tower of cars?
I did a bit of research and discovered that these towers originated in Europe and are used in many spots in Germany, where land is at a premium. They are also being used as parking garages in several U.S. cities. One such garage sits on approximately 700 square feet of ground-floor space, but can park nearly 250 cars on 10 levels. The secret is an automated robotic system of lifts and conveyers that can park cars within inches of one another.
Obviously, cars parked in such close proximity add to the potential fire load. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to determine how a single car fire could quickly spread to several vehicles in a structure that features a relatively open 10-story-tall central core. It also provides an interesting challenge for firefighters because of the limited access to stairwells, open areas with essentially no permanent floors, and very little concrete or other fire-resistive construction.
If faced with one of these “car towers” in your jurisdiction, here are some factors to consider:
- Plans review: Your plans review process for this potential occupancy is essential both during the construction phase and when it is operational. The plans review should help define your preplan of the structure.
- Preplan: Your preplan will help solidify your tactics, and should include a walk-around to obtain input from both the fire inspector and the first alarm units.
- Sprinklers and FDC: Sprinklers and standpipe Fire Department Connections (FDC) should always be clearly identified and accessible to fire units to supplement the internal water supply.
- PPE: All fire personnel should be in complete PPE, including SCBA, in any area of the hot zone. Glass and metal both deteriorate in high temperatures.
- Elevated master stream: Use of an elevated stream should be considered when necessary to make an initial knockdown and containment of the vehicle(s) on fire.
- Hoselines: When possible, multiple hoselines should be stretched from the standpipes during containment and overhaul.
- Duration and staffing: Remember that such a car tower structure may take considerably more time to extend an interior attack, and more personnel than normal for deploying a hoselines and for crew relief.
- Safety: Firefighter and citizen safety are paramount in your decision-making process.
2. Mixed-use buildings with parking garages
The second “what if” game occurred after I saw a mid-rise mixed-use business and townhouse structure under construction. These buildings are usually situated on a square block. It is not unusual to find several of these structures in close proximity within the same part of town.
These complexes have sprung up across the country and typically feature retail shops on the ground floor and residences above – two to four additional floors above ground level. Construction is typically wood-frame with drywall partitions and fire stops every two to four units depending on the local fire and building code. When completed, these buildings have fire sprinklers throughout and standpipes in the stairwells, but during construction, they can be a lumber yard in the sky without the built-in fire protection yet to be installed.
Most of these mixed-use structures also have off-street parking on the ground floor or in some cases, also underground. Sprinklers and standpipes are normally installed. But with the increased fire load of the parked cars, especially those late-model cars with additional plastic features, I was interested to see if the current NFPA 88A: Standard for Parking Structures, and NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems had adapted to the increased hazard, especially having parked cars beneath several floors of residential occupants.
My inquiry found that the NFPA 88A committee is already evaluating these questions with revisions set for their 2023 edition but has not yet released their findings for public comment. In addition, the NFPA 13 committee was said to be considering a change for parking garages from the current category of “Ordinary Hazard” to “Extra Hazard” that would result in an increase in fire protection with a higher density of sprinklers.
Plan for “extra hazard” car fires
While these issues may be addressed during the next NFPA standards review cycles, fire departments need to start their own evaluation during the plans review process, prior to construction, to become more acquainted with these critical issues and how they can ensure an adequate response.
As chief officers, we also need to make our firefighters aware of today’s increased hazards, and plan our tactics accordingly including the worst-case fire and life safety scenarios we may encounter.
Editor’s Note: Do you have glass-tower parking structures in your first-due? Is your department preparing for a fire response? Share in the comments below.