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4 keys to placing apparatus at vehicle fires

Knowing vehicle type, location, exposures and environmental conditions helps position apparatus for better safety and effectiveness

Online videos often reveal complacency by firefighters during vehicle fires. With all the video and training sources online, it makes me question why firefighters continually put themselves in positions of danger.

In most cases a few key initial decisions can put you and your crew in a position to make a safe attack on a vehicle fire. There are a few decisions and tactics you can make early to allow everyone to go home.

Poor apparatus placement puts firefighters in danger at this fire.

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Firefighters are taught size-up from the beginning. In recent years, you have been taught to not only do an initial size-up, but a continual size-up as well. There are many things that can be determined before we even arrive to a scene with a vehicle involved.

Typically dispatch will inform responding units of the type of fire and location, and in some cases communicate the type of vehicle. Knowing the location allows responding firefighters to not only find the fire, but to make an early plan of how and where to attack the fire.

Your initial placement is key. Consider if the location is a highway, a private road or commercial business center. Each is approached and attacked differently. Knowing the location in advance will help set the course for the proper placement of apparatus and eventual extinguishment of the fire.

Let’s say you have a vehicle fire on Elm Street, and you know that Elm Street has a dramatic slope to the road. It may be more beneficial to come into a vehicle fire from a different route or approach to allow the apparatus to be positioned safely.

The fire’s location will also determine exposure risks to civilians, buildings, other vehicles, firefighters and apparatus.

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Knowing the type of vehicle can tip you off to many possible hazards. I often teach firefighters to treat all vehicles as if they are ticking time bombs. Even the most innocent vehicle can be full of fertilizer and propane tanks.

Vehicle type can alert responding units to potential hazardous materials. Operations will dramatically change if you are responding to a car fire or to a tanker or tractor-trailer fire. The larger vehicles may warrant more resources and manpower. If there are hazardous materials or spills involved, additional HAZMAT units may be requested.

Remember, every vehicle fire has the potential for an unexpected explosion.

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When positioning a fire apparatus on scene, take into consideration the wind, slope, exposure risks and explosion dangers. Wind is important because poor apparatus placement will potentially put the responders in danger of exposure to toxic smoke and heat.

Road slope is not always considered, but should be on the top of your list as it plays a big role with leaks, spills and eventual containment. Multiple videos online highlight vehicle fires with fuel spills. Spills that go overlooked can compromise apparatus and personnel when fuels run under fire apparatus. This often happens because command has placed apparatus downhill of a vehicle fire.

Depending on the exposure risk you may need to place apparatus in a way that personnel can protect buildings, other vehicles or potential civilian hazards. In a busy civilian area, command should secure the area within the predetermined exposure and or explosion-risk area.

This is all dependent on the vehicle involved and the potential explosion risk. The control area for a Honda civic will be different than that for an involved tanker fire.

Poor apparatus placement puts firefighters in danger at this fire

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Understanding the risks and dangers at vehicle fires will put you and your personnel in a position to safely extinguish a vehicle fire of any size. Take a moment early to properly place apparatus to avoid injury and death from the explosive nature of vehicle fires.

Complacency is a killer. And remember, there are no heroes in unoccupied vehicle fires.

Jason T. Poremba is the owner and creator of His ‘Close Calls on Camera’ section on FR1 won Best Regularly Featured Web column/Trade category in the 2009 Maggie Awards, which honors the region’s best publications and Web sites. Jason is a 14-year member and captain in an engine company of a volunteer fire department in New York. His specialty training includes rapid intervention, firefighter survival and engine company operations. He has developed a way to train firefighters via the Web in the dangers of firefighter close calls, and dangerous training and firefighting procedures.