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Checklist: Vehicle fire attack

We may train less for them, but vehicle fires can be as dangerous as structure fires; here’s how to safely attack burning vehicles

There are countless near misses and line-of-duty deaths that resulted from bad things happening at structure fires. Because of those reports and that our primary mission of protecting lives stems from victims being trapped in house fires, we have modeled the majority of our training to the tactics of firefighting fires in buildings, mostly occupied homes.

The result is that we sometimes neglect other facets of the fire service when it comes to watching videos, reading and training for these other events. The fact that we don’t have to enter a building that is on fire with the possibility of trapped victims can create a sense of complacency for incidents such as vehicle fires.

We can see this in how some operate on the vehicle fires, primarily the lack of PPE used by some because they are not in a perceived IDLH. But as we all know, vehicle fires pose their own set of challenges that we should not ignore or take lightly.

Some of these challenges are not in the vehicle or the fire itself, but in the environment we are working in. We also know that vehicle fires can produce high levels of toxic gases and smoke that are just as dangerous as the products of combustion produced in a building fire that requires us to be fully protected with PPE and SCBA.

Environmental considerations
Many of these fires happen on roads where traffic is still moving. And smoke from the vehicle fire can obstruct motorists’ view of the road; both increasing the danger to firefighters. Place apparatus as strategically as possible to protect attack crews.

I prefer a combination nozzle on most vehicle fires. It allows me to easily push smoke away from the hose team, especially on roads, to see a clear and safe path to the vehicle.

Access to a parking garage or remote areas may require additional resources as compared to a vehicle just parked in the open. Likewise, rural areas may require tanker (tender) responses for commercial vehicles depending on the responding agencies’ resources.

It is also important to know where hydrants are located along highways and interstates and plan for their use.

Vehicle-fire checklist

  • Always use all personal protective equipment, including SCBA — that means being on air.
  • Approach vehicles from a corner starting low to push any combustible liquids away from the attack team, then bring the nozzle up to hit the body of fire.
  • Watch the ground for burning liquids flowing toward the attack team.
  • Check the driver compartment for victims as soon as possible.
  • Beware of bumper shocks that can become projectiles.
  • Consider airbags on the interior when checking for victims.
  • Attack from upwind and uphill whenever possible. This is often easier said than done.
  • On commercial and some passenger vehicles, check for hazmat placards and proceed accordingly after identifying any products.
  • In parking garages, use the FDC and consider exposure vehicles. You can also ventilate for visibility with a fan.
  • For vehicles with exposures, use an attack line is no smaller than 1¾ inch and consider pulling a second line.

Those are just some basic considerations for fighting vehicle fires. Follow your department’s operating guidelines and don’t take shortcuts with your PPE and SCBA.

Train for pulling hose and attacking in confined areas like highways with moving traffic. This is one of the biggest challenges for companies when operating on a busy highway. We can’t always pull our lines the same way we do on building fires, so train accordingly.

It is also important to remember that many vehicles have combustible metals that react to water application. This may require more water than normal or chemical extinguishing agents, but you must know how to identify when you have those conditions and the appropriate safety measures to take.

Train hard and often, and stay safe.

Jason Hoevelmann is a deputy chief and fire marshal with the Sullivan (Mo.) Fire Protection District and a career captain and training officer with the Florissant Valley (Mo.) Fire Protection District. His experience spans more than 20 years, with more than 15 years as an instructor. Jason holds an associate’s degree in paramedic science from East Central College and a bachelor’s degree in fire service administration from Eastern Oregon University. He is a state advocate for the Everyone Goes Home initiative and a board member for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He is also co-owner of Engine House Training, LLC.