What’s in your trunk?

After being hit from the rear, a cruiser bursts into flames leading fire investigators to question what caused the fire


By Bill Folger

In Prince George’s County, Maryland, a police cruiser was parked on the left shoulder of the exit ramp on Interstate 95 and Central Ave to assist a disabled motorist. The officer was out of his car and talking to the operator of the disabled vehicle when his cruiser was struck by a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed coming off I95 onto the exit ramp.

The striking vehicle hit the police cruiser in the rear and veered off before coming to rest approximately 25 feet away from the point of impact. The impact caused the cruiser to spin 180 degrees. Within seconds, the cruiser and its contents were on fire. The fire department was dispatched and extinguished the fire without incident or injuries. The vehicle was a total loss.

Fleet maintenance requested a complete fire investigation to determine the cause of the fire.
Fleet maintenance requested a complete fire investigation to determine the cause of the fire. (Photo/Bill Folger)

The Chevrolet Impala police cruiser was towed to the Prince George’s County Fleet Maintenance Division. The shop manager contacted the Fire Investigations Unit for an initial inspection of the vehicle.

Investigators interviewed the police officer to get an inventory of the equipment and belonging in the trunk and passenger compartment. The following items were noted in the initial inventory of the vehicle:

  • One pepper ball air gun with pepper balls projectiles
  • One aerosol can of lubricant for air gun
  • Box of emergency road flares
  • Plastic forms organizer box
  • Rain jacket
  • Other miscellaneous police items

As the fire was classified as accidental, fire investigators were only allowed to visually inspect the vehicle until a Chevrolet representative inspected the vehicle for safety-related defects, quality concerns related to the manufacturing, and design defects. 

All recalls for the vehicle were reviewed and were found not to be relevant to the investigation.

Investigation

Approximately one week later, Chevrolet representatives and the fleet maintenance crew inspected the vehicle.

The inspection revealed that the entire fuel system (plastic fuel tank, filler neck, fuel lines, vent hoses and gas cap) was still intact and the gasoline tank still had fuel in it. It was the Chevrolet representative’s opinion that the fire had nothing to do with any malfunction of systems/components manufactured by Chevrolet, and no design defects were noted. 

Fleet maintenance requested a complete fire investigation to determine the cause of the fire. Fire investigators examined the vehicle and inventoried all items that were in the trunk prior to the collision. Most items were destroyed or severely damaged by the fire. Several of the pepper ball projectiles were accidentally punctured while removing the items from the trunk, making it more difficult to examine.

Located in the fire origin area were the remains of a one-gallon plastic container identified as Pitt-Penn windshield washer fluid. This item was not originally reported by the officer in the initial inventory; however, during a follow-up interview, the officer acknowledged having a full one-gallon bottle of washer fluid. It was also discovered that the container had been compromised during the collision. The Pitt-Penn windshield washer fluid contains methanol, a combustible liquid, that is added to prevent the fluid from freezing during cold weather.

Fire investigators concluded that a container of windshield washer fluid in the trunk was compromised during the collision.
Fire investigators concluded that a container of windshield washer fluid in the trunk was compromised during the collision. (Photo/Bill Folger)

Fire cause

It is the opinion of fire investigators that the container of windshield washer fluid was compromised during the collision, causing the fluid to be atomized and spread throughout the trunk area of the vehicle. A spark from the collision or from the taillight assembly ignited the fluid causing the fire. The fire destroyed the entire trunk and passenger compartments of the vehicle and was a total loss.

The Chevrolet Impala was a fully equipped marked cruiser with emergency lights and siren, computer and other miscellaneous police equipment.

Recommendations

We all know the dangers of carrying a full gasoline can in the trunk of your vehicle. Not only is it an explosion hazard, but it can also cause serious health issues from the fumes venting from the container.

It is recommended that flammable/combustible liquids are not stored or transported in the trunk or passenger compartment of your vehicles. This includes aerosol sprays with lubricant for cleaning equipment. If the officer had been sitting in the vehicle at the time of the collision the outcome might have been different.

It is also recommended to carry a fire extinguisher inside of the passage compartment for quicker access. One company makes a stick-type fire extinguisher with a 15-year shelf life with no service or maintenance required that fits in your glove box.


About the author

Bill Folger is a retired captain with the Prince George’s County Fire-EMS Department in Maryland on the eastern border of Washington DC. During his 21-year career, he was assigned to fire suppression, the Office of the Fire Marshal, the Special Events Unit and ATF Federal Task Force. He also served as a Prince George’s County police officer assigned to the patrol. He is both a certified police and fire instructor and has presented in both PG County academies and the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia. As a certified fire/explosives investigator, he has investigated over 1,000 incidents. Bill holds two applied science degrees in fire science and criminal justice.

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