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How to prep for CNG vehicle fires

More common than you may think, natural gas-powered vehicles are a serious fire and explosion threat that fire chiefs must plan for


Updated 6/27/2017

In July 2015, I wrote about the fire, explosion and subsequent investigation by the Indianapolis Fire Department that January involving a compressed natural gas (CNG) powered garbage truck.

The fire began in the compactor refuse area and quickly grew with such intensity that it impinged upon the CNG fuel tanks atop the truck's cab. This caused catastrophic failure of the tanks, resulting in an explosion and fire that injured one Indianapolis firefighter.

The previous column was written with help from Fire Captain James King and Assistant Chief Kenneth Bacon from the IFD and Training Chief Charlie Fadale from the Fishers (Ind.) Fire Departments. We made several recommendations for strategy and tactics as well the lessons learned from this fire and explosion.

Copies of the IFD's PowerPoint presentation, available here, were made available to any fire department for training and education purposes. Thus far, nearly 200 departments or state fire academies have requested a copy of that presentation.

Since that time, there have been at least 15 other CNG truck fires all across the country. While the vast majority of those reported were in garbage or refuse trucks, don't be fooled, CNG can now be found powering many over-the-road trucks as well as heavy construction equipment and automobiles.

CNG training materials

Now, we need to look at how some members of the refuse/recycling industry and CNG tank manufacturers have approached the safety of responding firefighters and the safety of their employees during such incidents.

To start, I approached former Battalion Chief Randy Ellert who now serves as the corporate safety office manager for Rumpke, Inc., one of the largest independently owned refuse and recycling companies in the Midwest.

Ellert said that the leading types of fires in garbage trucks include engine and cab fires, compactor fires and tire or brake fires. Given enough time, all three of these can spread sufficiently to impinge the CNG tanks that normally sit in a steel cage atop the cab or in a vault-type metal case immediately behind the cab. Both configurations have a red shut-off button or valve normally close to the driver-side door.

David Weisinger, who is Rumpke's site safety supervisor, has conducted several classes for fire departments throughout the Midwest to familiarize them with both the hazards and safety devices designed into these trucks. He instructs his drivers when there is a garbage-truck fire to find a relatively remote area, call the fire department, dump the refuse, and if possible, drive the truck a safe distance away from the burning refuse before shutting down the vehicle.

In doing so, the driver is removing the majority of the Class A combustible material that can both spread the fire and increase both heat and pressure in the truck's CNG tanks.

One of his driver's successfully performed this operation recently in Cincinnati. While the dumped refuge fire left the fire department with the unenviable task of extinguishing a mound of trash, it did save both the truck and alleviated any chance of either a pressure release or explosion.

Sizing up the CNG tanker danger zone

Former firefighter Larry Stone, now the director of emergency services for 1-800-Board-Up in central Florida, has been taking his presentation on CNG trucks around the central Florida area. He not only describes the types and safety features on several CNG fuel tanks, he discusses possible scenarios and tactics using videos from several fires.

Stone and I have discussed the value and risks of a 360-degree walk-around. In some cases, the 360-degree size up places the officer in the danger zone should the CNG tank fail. Stone says this is unacceptable and dangerous practice.

This certainly has merit. However, if we revert to our hazmat training, a pair of good binoculars carried on the apparatus or chief's vehicle could still provide the needed 360 at safe distance. In this, or any hazmat situation, the value of a 360-degree size up should be safely maintained with the proper equipment and training.

From another industry perspective, David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, recently made a presentation at an industry conference in Indianapolis outlining several features incorporated in most CNG-fueled trucks operating around the country. SWANA has an eight-page white paper outlining the use of CNG primarily on refuse trucks.

While our unfamiliarity with CNG-fueled trucks may continue into the near future, there is competent training and advice available from multiple reliable sources. However, experience has shown that the original PowerPoint distributed by the Indianapolis Fire Department that includes both recommendations for strategy and tactics remains the one of the most helpful for use by your department.

Indianapolis SIIT Team Investigation by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Nothing beats hands-on training and knowledge of how to safely recognize an alternative fueled vehicle from a safe distance. While not all refuse companies offer hands-on training, check to see if they offer information and site visits that can help familiarize your firefighters with these issues.

For instances where hand-on training is unavailable, Wayne Yoshida of Agility Fuel Systems has provided their presentation on the general types of systems used to operate CNG fueled trucks. While this gives a general sense of the compressed gas operating systems now on the road, it is more of a general reference and not meant to be taken as a specific standard operating guideline for firefighting.

The bottom line is that this new hazard is here, it's not going away and could be part of the next call you receive.

It's up to the chiefs and the company or training officers to ensure that firefighters are prepared and know how to recognize CNG vehicles and then choose the appropriate strategy and tactics that emphasize firefighter and public safety.

Agility CNG ENP-084 Rev B First Responder Guide

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