Fighting Fires in Vehicle Service Facilities

Almost every town in the United States has at least one vehicle service station, but are you prepared for the dangers hidden behind the garage doors? Michael Daley shares a number of concerns for fires in these buildings.


Service stations and automotive repair facilities are situated in almost every community in our country, serving the community as a fueling station, mechanic shop, and even a place for heavy trucks to go and get fuel and repairs. While these stations are frequented by us in our daily routines, we in the fire service rarely respond to fires in these facilities. However, when we do, these incidents have the potential to become significant incidents for a fire department to deal with (see Photo 1).

According to the latest National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics, nationwide response to fires at service stations averaged slightly more than 5,000 responses. Out of these responses, structure fires accounted for approximately only 12% of the incidents, but were responsible for nearly 60% of the direct property damage (see Photo 2). In these fires, heating equipment, electrical distribution and lighting equipment are listed as the top three causes. Other fires at these facilities included outdoor fires and vehicle fires, with gasoline commonly listed as the first material ignited. Most of the injuries annually at these fires occur at vehicle fires, which is why it is important that motorists ground themselves of static electricity by touching a metal part of the door before they begin fueling up.

Notwithstanding the importance of safety while at the pump, this month we take a look at some of the more significant hazards present at these facilities, as some of these hazards are significant size-up points. Be sure to consider the following while performing your size-up:

Construction – Many of these facilities are Type II Construction (Non/Limited Combustible), which historically has been identified as the most susceptible type of construction to collapse under fire conditions. Unreinforced load bearing masonry walls, lightweight steel bar joists and lightweight roof decking can fail quickly under heavy fire conditions. In the main shop floor area, many of these facilities have service pits built into the floor (see Photo 3). These pits serve as access points for technicians to work below the vehicles while they are in the bay; additionally, many times common parts, fuels and fluids are located within the confines of the bay pits, allowing the technician to stay below the vehicle and make necessary repairs without continually surfacing for parts and equipment. During the push into the building to attack the fire, search teams and hose team members may fall into these areas and not be able to find their way back to the floor area.

Apparatus, Personnel & Equipment – These incidents are going to be manpower-extensive, resulting in multiple alarm responses to contain. Mitigating the resulting debris and runoff from the suppression operation may have to be dealt with long-term; it may be wise to consider breaking these incidents into more realistic operational periods, as companies might be needed on-scene for a long time.

Water Supply – A large majority of these facilities are not suppressed, which can lead to significant fires within them. Water for suppression, foam operations and perhaps decontamination of personnel and equipment will require at least two separate water supplies to support these operations.

Street Conditions – Consider the location of these facilities throughout the response area; most of the times, these businesses are located on primary roads and “main drags” through town. Parking areas within the facility property will be limited in size, and will have added congestion with vehicles on site being repaired. Placement of apparatus on these roads may be necessary; if so, then one primary concern of the Incident Commander (IC) is to gain control of the traffic flow in the area (see Photo 4). Law enforcement should be requested to channel vehicular traffic away from the incident; this will provide a safer fireground for the responders, and easy access for additional alarm companies to get into the scene quicker.

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