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 can occur on a car fire:

  • The response itself (we have to get to the scene without hurting others or ourselves)
  • Arrival on the roadway (the clearly documented issues of stopping and operating on a road or highway)
  • Arrival in a structure, or up against a structure or other exposure (one engine and a few firefighters — now what do we do?)
  • Is the car occupied as a result of a crash or unusual circumstances such as suicide or crime related?
  • What is in the car (you name it, it can be found in a car, including "mobile" meth labs)?
  • The smoke and off-gassing of the car — mask up, do not breathe that stuff
  • What are the hazards of the car itself, such as the fuel and the subject of this month's close call — projectiles?

The Danbury, CT, Fire Department protects about 80,000 residents plus commuters and visitors. The department's career division is comprised of 118 members in five locations. Six engine companies and a truck company are fully staffed 24/7. The department is also a keystone in the state's regional response plan with a number of resources of the state being housed in Danbury. These resources will respond when called upon by the state and are staffed by Danbury firefighters. In addition to the career division, the Danbury Fire Department has 12 volunteer companies. The volunteer companies respond to fires and other emergencies as well as assisting with traffic control with specially trained fire police.

Our sincere thanks to Chief of Department Geoff Herald and Lieutenant Heather Anderson, Firefighter/Driver Jon DeJoseph and the members of the Danbury Fire Department for their assistance with this month's close call.

This account was provided by Danbury Fire Department Lieutenant Heather Anderson:

It was shift change on Sept. 12, 2009, and a call came in for a car fire. It was quickly upgraded to a possible structure fire as reports indicated the vehicle was against a building. Our engine arrived first on scene to find a 1987 Volvo 780 backed up against a brick commercial building. The building was not involved, but the engine compartment was fully engulfed.

We stopped short of the vehicle, about 40 feet away and at an angle. While giving my size-up on the radio, I heard a loud bang. We initially thought it was a tire exploding, but I heard my driver utter some choice words. I looked over and saw a half-dollar-sized hole in the windshield right near the driver's face. It turns out that there were several pieces of glass in the apparatus driver's eye, resulting in a scratched cornea (the driver was fully recovered by the next shift).

Initially, we thought that only the metal bumper had struck the engine and caused all of the damage. The assistant chief saw the debris flying through the air as he pulled on to the scene and there was a good-sized impact mark on the front of the vehicle below the hole in the windshield. A large section of bumper was found in the middle of the road next to the engine.

Days later, we realized that a small piece of the bumper piston had flown through the windshield and ended up behind the officer's airpack in the front seat. Timing played into our favor because had this been 30 seconds later, the debris that impacted the engine could easily have hit the crew stretching the hoseline to extinguish the fire.

We learn in our training that in order to safely approach a vehicle fire, we should approach at 45-degree angles to the front and rear of the vehicle. We know that we should be mindful of overhead wires and attempt to park uphill from a burning vehicle. After this incident, we realized that we also should have positioned the apparatus farther away from the incident. Parking farther away encourages crews to use a longer hoseline and start applying water from an appropriate angle, yet farther away from potential projectiles.

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.