Car fires: How to defuse these ticking time bombs

Proper attitude, angle of attack and protective gear are some of the ways to make safe and successful vehicle fire attacks

It has been more than four years since I last wrote on the dangers of vehicle fires. Have we raised our guards and have we reduced vehicle fire-related injuries and close calls?

There is no way to really tell. One could sift through all the firefighter Web sites and try to quantify the total number of close calls, injuries and such. Does that accurately calculate the total number?

The answer is most certainly no. Technology has connected the fire service more than ever, but we are still firefighters through and through and reluctant to report near misses.

For many, the "safest" bet is often to remain silent and complacent. The problem with this is our technology does the talking for us now.

Now civilians and firefighters alike are airing our job. Thanks to cell phones, video cameras and the digital era we see the truth play out daily on various multi-media sites.

Less-than-serious myth
The truth is we are involved in vehicle-fire close calls and near misses. We are in fact complacent despite seeing fellow firefighters nearly not make it over and over again.

We are still not taking these fires seriously. We show up ill prepared, under equipped and attack with complacency.

I have heard it myself. "You don't need to pack up; it's just a car fire." The reality is you should pack up, you should be in full PPE and you should prepare for and expect the unexpected.

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Changing the odds
Come prepared to fight. Bring your ax and halligan and consider a pike pole to take windows from a distance. Unless the vehicle is occupied there is no reason to make unnecessary, over-aggressive attacks on vehicle fires.

Most vehicle fires are total losses on arrival, so take this to heart when putting your life on the line. Why push ahead with minimal protection toward a potential ticking bomb?

This information alone should put you in a position mentally to proceed with caution and be aware of inhalation and explosive hazards. Gather yourself, take an extra second to conduct a full 360-degree size-up.

A vehicle fire can go bad at any moment, but proper apparatus placement can put the odds in your favor. Position the apparatus uphill and upwind. This will put you in a position that you and your crew can attack with more visibility, reduced heat and less chances for advancing through fuel spills.

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Risk assessment
On arrival you will also need to determine exposure risks. Make sure the vehicle fire is not extending to other vehicles or adjacent structures. In some cases your vehicle fire may be secondary to the exposure risk. Secure the area and protect potential life hazards first if applicable.

On your approach to the vehicle, avoid direct lines from tires, bumpers, hatches and strut-related compartments. These components have a track record of failing, and when they do they often explode. These explosions are often sudden, unexpected — in some cases a projectile or shrapnel-like piece is thrown from the vehicle.

Beyond that, assume the worst. There is no real way of telling what is inside the vehicle in question.

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Know your enemy. Be on the lookout for airbags, two-piece rims, magnesium components, propane, bio-fuel and hybrid vehicles. There are also transient type materials such as fertilizers, propane tanks, chemicals and hazardous materials.

Working the angles
Taking all these hazards into consideration will put you in a position to make your approach at an angle. Most of your knock down will happen from a distance, and the bulk of the fire can be knocked down during your approach.

This approach will put the odds further in your favor. If the manpower is available consider a back-up line as well, and be on the lookout for fuel spills that could put you and your crew in danger.

Once the majority of the fire is knocked down, the firefighters can make their move toward the vehicle.

If there is still fire in the engine compartment, use the halligan to make a purchase on the edge of the hood and fender. Insert the end into the seam and peal it back enough to get the nozzle stream into the engine compartment. This technique is easy and keeps firefighters away from the bumper.

If there is fire in the rear trunk, use the flat head ax and the halligan. Attacking the lock will usually do the trick. Open slowly and make the final attack. Once any trunk or hood is open, be sure to safely secure it in the upright position.

Once the job is complete, consider rinsing off used hose lines before packing, as they are often exposed to flammable liquids. You also should check your personal protective equipment for any potential hazards or contaminants.

Good size-up and an awareness for the dangers of vehicle fires will increase your odds of returning to quarters safely.

Things to consider when attacking a fire include:

  • Apparatus positioning
  • Wind, leaking fluids, exposure issues, smoke, civilians
  • Life hazard
  • Occupants or no occupants, civilians in immediate area
  • Type of car
  • Airbags, struts, bumpers, tires, hatchbacks, magnesium blocks, two piece rims, bio fuel, propane powered, commercial vehicle, hazardous materials
  • The unknown
  • Fertilizer, propane tanks, gas containers, weapons, etc.

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