Take Cover — Incoming! Projectiles at Vehicle Fires

Not too many years ago, it seemed that a car fire was a simple bread-and-butter job. But when we look at the potential for things to go wrong on a car fire, "bread-and-butter" is the last thing we think of. Think of the numerous potential problems that...


Not too many years ago, it seemed that a car fire was a simple bread-and-butter job. But when we look at the potential for things to go wrong on a car fire, "bread-and-butter" is the last thing we think of. Think of the numerous potential problems that can occur on a car fire: The response...


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Our incident also reinforced the idea of never getting in front of or behind a vehicle fire until it is properly cooled. While part of one bumper piston ended up in our engine, the other bumper piston rocketed forward and was found in the grass approximately 70 feet from the burned vehicle. There was a large gouge in the pavement where it initially hit before landing in the grass. This also could have been a close call or a tragic event if the crew, police or bystanders were in front of the burning vehicle. The crew did not believe we were taking a car-fire call for granted. Our mistake was in assuming we were safe inside the apparatus.

The following comments by Chief Goldfeder are based on discussions from the writer and others:

Another firefighter has been injured at a working car fire from "projectiles." While not a new problem, one other event you may recall was when a firefighter in Windsor Locks, CT, was seriously injured when a hood strut "took off" and shot into his leg, through his bunker gear, seriously injuring him as well (see Close Calls, February 2005). Upon arrival, that fire was confined to the engine compartment. While companies were gaining access to the engine compartment, a firefighter had just released the hood safety latch when the hood shock strut exploded and fired into him, striking him in his upper thigh and piercing completely through his bunker pants and his leg with the approximately 18-inch-long strut.

In another event, an Oakland, CA, firefighter was hospitalized with a broken leg after the front bumper of a burning car turned into a projectile. The firefighter and crew had responded and was successfully and appropriately protecting a residential exposure from the fire, but while the car was burning, the front bumper blew off and struck the firefighter in her left leg.

As you are aware, the front bumpers of most cars are attached to shocks that are filled with gas, under pressure with a metal housing. When they get heated up, they expand and blow up. Hood struts function and fail in a similar manner when heated.

There are usually two shocks on each end of the car and these help prevent structural damage in low-speed bumps. However, in a vehicle fire situation, the gas will expand in the shock and eventually the assembly will fail. Approaching a vehicle fire from any angle, front or rear, is often dangerous as one or both shocks can explode, sending the bumper into your knees with major force. Cooling the bumper areas is a must and just because the fire is out doesn't mean the shocks may not explode later.

Use extreme caution around the bumpers, hood, trunk and hatchbacks as well as glove boxes and accessory compartments. Take a look at your own car and identify where the problem areas are. Use caution. While in some cases lines may have to be positioned to protect exposures, in most cases, working car fires are stand-alone write-offs. Get geared up with full personal protective equipment (PPE) and no exposed skin. Charge the line, but hit the fire from a position where you are not an exposure yourself. Struts, bumpers, airbags, etc., all pose a significant danger to firefighters.

Keep in mind: Yes, it is "just" a car fire, but a rare reason for any of us to ever get hurt is at "just" a car fire.

On behalf of my family and me to you and yours, we wish you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving, with all of us having so much to be thankful for.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at BillyG@FirefighterCloseCalls.com.