Vehicles fires make for a common call type for firefighters. As exciting as they can be for a new firefighter – and even some seasoned firefighters – vehicle fires pose many dangers to crewmembers working on scene.
A key point that all firefighters must remember is that a vehicle fire is a class B fire. Every vehicle carries on board some sort of flammable liquid: gasoline, diesel, transmission fluid, steering fluid, coolant, etc. They will all contribute to the fuel load when heated to their ignition temperature. Some liquids, like gasoline, will ignite faster than others.
The corresponding video illustrates why vehicle fires are a significant danger for firefighters. When flammable liquids are allowed to pool and then exposed to an ignition source, they will burn!
The responding crew got caught in the flash reignition of the liquids, but thankfully, they were protected by their PPE. This is a good example of why we need to always wear of full PPE for all vehicle fires – something the firefighters in this article could learn from.
Could you imagine what the injuries would have been if they were not wearing their full PPE?
- No SCBA – third-degree inhalation burns to the throat, trachea, possibly lungs. Facial burns around the mouth and nose area
- No flash hood or helmet – third-degree burns to the scalp, neck, eyes and face.
- No gloves – third-degree burns to the hands and wrists.
It is vital that firefighters wear full PPE for all vehicle fires. One thing to watch, though, is how the gear, when exposed to the extreme high-heat temperatures, starts to off-gas. Our PPE does have limits and a simple fuel spill fire is enough to push the gear to those limits.
Another item that we need to be mindful of is how to fight class B fires – from a distance at first, then approach to finish it off. Regardless of whether we are using foam, we always start from a distance, as this provides us with defendable space between us and the fire.
Using a foam product at a vehicle fire is a good idea, as it will help suppress the vapors that come off and ignite from any fuel spilled. It is not the end-all-be-all for suppressing a vehicle fire faster than water; there is still technique involved, and crews must know how to apply the water or foam solution to the vehicle.
So the next time you respond to a vehicle fire, remember that it is a Class B fire, and be mindful of what is flowing out from the vehicle and where you are standing in relation to it, and then start extinguishment from a distance before moving closer.
Bonus Resource from the Lexipol Policy Team
Take a moment to review your applicable policies and procedures. These include, but are not limited to, PPE use and maintenance, traffic incident management, hazmat response and vehicle fire response. These policies and procedures should take into account not only the class B fire risk, but also ordinary combustibles, energized electrical equipment, and flammable metals. There is no excuse for not wearing your complete PPE ensemble, including SCBA.
- Establish the appropriate incident command structure for the incident.
- The 360 should include identification of power source (gasoline, diesel, or alternative fuel), which should dictate deployment of resources for containment.
- Remember to stage your apparatus uphill and upwind of the fire. Staging and approaching the involved vehicle from upwind helps crews maintain visibility while keeping the smoke and particles off your PPE.
- Direction and control of your water stream is also crucial. Most vehicle fires occur on a highway or street, and while other traffic continues to flow, the water stream should not extend beyond the car that is on fire.
- Additionally, make sure that you stay out of traffic. Onlookers are curious as to what fire activities are going on, and you could be in their path should they drift out of their lane.
Remember, the next reported vehicle fire you respond to may be a combined fire, extrication and hazmat incident rolled into one.
This article, originally published in 2020, has been updated.