What cops should know about vehicle fires
Factors to consider upon arrival at a vehicle fire, plus what to know about attempting an occupant rescue
By Vince Bettinazzi
Vehicle fires are a common occurrence in the United States, with more than 170,000 such incidents occurring annually, per the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
As a police officer, you are likely to encounter more than a few vehicle fires during your career. What’s more, you may be the first public safety member on the scene. So, what can you do for those few minutes prior to the fire department’s arrival on the scene? Several factors can guide you in these critical moments.
Basic vehicle components and dangers
First, it’s important to understand some basic vehicle components and dangers.
Today’s vehicles are routinely manufactured from lightweight metals and plastics. Commonly, vehicles are fabricated into a single frame called unibody for typical passenger models. Parts of the vehicle are then reinforced in order to absorb energy from collisions and protect the occupants.
With a unibody vehicle frame, there are some vehicle components that can turn dangerous during a vehicle fire. The most concerning ones include the fuel tank, gas struts or springs, bumper shocks, batteries, magnesium engine blocks/steering columns, and tires.
- Fuel tanks: It is true that a vehicle’s fuel tank can possibly “explode” in the event of a fire; however, what is more dangerous is a leaking fuel tank. A leaking fuel tank can spread diesel or gasoline in any direction from the vehicle, which will potentially spread the fire. Also, be mindful of unignited pools of gasoline around the burning vehicle.
- Gas shocks and struts: These components can be found in several places inside a vehicle, but are commonly used as a closer device for vehicle hatchbacks and hoods. When heated by fire, they can explode, possibly causing parts of the car to become projectiles.
- Bumper shocks: Bumper shocks are found inside vehicle bumpers and are used to absorb energy from collisions. Bumper shocks are similar to gas struts, as the spring components can release when heated.
- Batteries: Newer electric and hybrid vehicles have battery packs that can emit toxic gases while burning. This is especially dangerous to vehicle occupants, bystanders and responding police officers who do not have respiratory protection and may be in close proximity to the burning vehicle.
- Magnesium engine blocks/steering columns: Magnesium is a strong and lightweight metal, making it a favorite choice for vehicle manufacturers. When it reaches its ignition temperature, magnesium burns incredibly hot and intense. It reacts violently to water, often bursting with sparks and intense flashes of light. Although magnesium can be extinguished, it requires a lot of water to do so.
- Tires: Vehicle tires are another hazard that when super-heated tend to violently pop, sending parts of the tire flying outward.
It is important for officers to be cognizant of these hazards at all times, whether during a size-up or efforts to rescue passengers. There are no obvious warning signs that one of these vehicle parts is about to fail, but the intensity of the vehicle fire will play a critical role. As such, the safest way to approach a burning vehicle is from the corners at 45-60-degree angles. Try to avoid standing directly in front, behind, or directly next to the vehicle if possible.
First-arriving officer actions
Advanced engine compartment or passenger compartment vehicle fires may be too much of a fire load for single ABC fire extinguishers to effectively control. Further, you would need to be very close to the vehicle in order to attempt extinguishment, increasing the potential to be impacted by one of the aforementioned hazards.
So, what can the first-arriving officer do prior to the fire department’s arrival?
When you arrive on the scene, size up the incident and establish a safe perimeter. If there is potential for quick fire spread to other vehicles or to a building, make sure that information is given to your dispatcher and relay that to the fire department as soon as they arrive on scene. If the vehicle fire is threatening to extend into a house or apartment, it may be beneficial for the first-arriving LEOs to start an evacuation of the exposure structure in order to ensure occupants are moved to safety.
The first-in officers can block or divert vehicle traffic in order for the fire department to quickly access the scene and work in a safe perimeter, especially if you are aware of the anticipated direction of travel for responding fire apparatus. If not, base your decision on the greatest impact for safety and access. Remember, do not restrict access to the fire department if at all possible.
Other important information to include in a size-up includes what contributing factors led to the vehicle fire and what type of vehicle is involved. For instance, the fire and EMS response will be different for a vehicle on fire following a three-car vehicle collision than an abandoned vehicle set ablaze by an arsonist. Similarly, fires involving large commercial vehicles, like semi-trucks and buses, will routinely require more than a single-engine company to effectively manage.
In relation to commercial vehicle fires, being able to ascertain the trailer’s contents or specific passenger count is a critical piece of intelligence that can help arriving firefighters make informed decisions to formulate their plan of action.
Rescuing trapped occupants
There is always a possibility that a vehicle occupant will be trapped or unable to exit a vehicle fire. Obviously, the safety of the occupants is a top priority, but understand the personal risks you face as well when attempting a rescue. The vehicle type and amount of fire you encounter may make it impossible to attempt a rescue without firefighters on scene.
As mentioned earlier, an ABC fire extinguisher may not be 100% effective in controlling the fire. While you should use an extinguisher if possible, especially in the case of rescue, do understand that it may not be able to control the fire due to several factors.
Vehicle glass could be a formidable opponent in terms of gaining access to the occupants, as several vehicle manufacturers have started using laminated glass not only for windshields but also for side windows. A thin layer of plastic is sealed between two layers of glass, the ultimate goal being to keep the entire sheet of glass intact, and will normally only crack or splinter when impacted. This type of glass increases the occupant’s safety during collisions by preventing the occupants from being ejected, it reduces exterior noise and prevents “smash and grab”-style thefts. Know that other points of access, such as a moonroof/sunroof or the vehicle’s rear window, may be the only windows that have the tempered glass which is most useful for accessing an occupant.
Normally the vehicle’s side windows are made of tempered glass. Tempered glass or “safety glass” is designed to break into thousands of smaller pieces, and is intended to help reduce potential injuries. Tempered glass can be broken, although it takes a good strong hit from a flashlight or baton to do so. This glass can easily be overcome by glass-breaking tools, such as a centerpunch or tools with a special carbide tip. Obviously, try the vehicle’s door, as an unlocked door is ultimately the easiest to open. If the occupant is conscious but panicking, direct their attention toward unlocking the door or manipulating the handle.
As a police officer, you have a good chance of being first to a vehicle fire. I hope that the information you received from this article gives you some guidance and a little bit of confidence to make the best on-scene decisions before the fire department arrives.
About the author
Vincent Bettinazzi is a battalion chief with the Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) Fire Department, where he has served since 2007. He is a certified USLA Lifeguard on the MBFD’s Ocean Rescue Team. He completed the NFA’s Managing Officer Program in April 2016, with his capstone project focused on ocean rescue response and resources.