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.

Exposures – Radiant heat, toxic run-off and acrid smoke will increase the “hot zone” when it comes to exposed occupancies. What are these facilities next to, nearby, or upwind from? What is the potential health and environmental damage from the fire? While fireground water runoff is usually one of the last issues on an IC’s mind, it must be addressed as potentially toxic mixtures of fuels, oils, cleaners and solvents can result in soil and water contamination, requiring costly long-term mitigation to dispose.

Location & Extent of Fire – Equally as important to location and extent is fire load, as it is relative to the rate of heat release within the structure. When looking within the service area of a facility, there are many types of hydrocarbon-based fuels that are present within the structure:

  • Rear walls can have parts shelves from floor to ceiling in the service area. Paper filters and packages, tires and aerosol cans of cleaners and lubricants will be stockpiled for easy access while the repairs are being made (see Photo 5).
  • Parts cleaners and acidic solvent tanks will be located throughout the facility, just about anywhere the cleaning sink will fit.
  • A thorough 360-degree size-up will help to identify hazards on the exterior of the facility. Many times vehicles, debris, discarded parts and used motor vehicles are collected and stored outside the facility (see Photo 6). These can be sources of ignition from the exterior that can involve the structure.
  • Acetylene torches will be within the service area. This type of torch is used to heat metal to kindling temperature, and a stream of oxygen is applied through the trigger of the torch head, and the molten metal flows out the kerf cut left by the flame. Acetylene is the primary fuel and is highly flammable and unstable. It is stored in large cylinders packed with a porous material and mixed with Acetone to help stabilize the fuel, as Acetylene is Acetone soluble. Without it, Acetylene is likely to explode. When in use, it produces a flame with a temperature upwards of 6,300 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest among common gaseous fuels. When it is exposed to heat from a fire, it is a time bomb that will fail.
  • Consider the amount of “fuel” within a motor vehicle that is on fire; hydrocarbon upholstered seats, engine fuel, combustible metals, tires and other materials stored in the cargo areas can combine to create a significant amount of energy/heat released from the burning vehicle. Now, consider that same vehicle up on a lift in the repair bay: the “fuel package” that the vehicle provides is now introduced into the area collecting the most heat within the compartment, becoming a more powerful source of heat energy for the convected gases (see Photo 7). Additionally, these vehicles serve as an extremely significant collapse hazard; most lifts in these facilities have mechanical locks that must be disengaged to lower the vehicle, which also serve as a safety lock in the event of hydraulic failure. While the vehicle lift may not fail, the vehicle stability on the lift can be compromised with the application of high-caliber water streams for suppression (see Photo 8). Be sure to check if an elevated vehicle is within the service area when determining mode of operation to be implemented.

Hazmat Presence - These facilities can serve as a melting pot for all types of hazardous materials, including:

  • Sulfuric Acid – vehicle batteries
  • Caustic solutions – parts cleaners
  • Gasoline/diesel fuel
  • Aerosol parts cleaners
  • Motor oils
  • Lubricants and greases
  • Hydraulic fluids
  • Alcohol-based solutions (used for water displacement in fuel/air brake systems)
  • Flammable gases and oxidizers


Fires at these types of facilities will spread rapidly, from small incipient fires to multiple alarm incidents. Keys to successful mitigation of these potential hazards begin with the inspection; make sure the facility managers understand how potentially dangerous a fire at their shop can be, not only for the employees and the customers, but for the general public as well. Once the incident occurs, the IC will find it very difficult to get ahead of the fire progression, so it is vital that everyone knows what is on site at the facility and who is to respond immediately in the event a fire occurs there.

Until next time, Stay focused and stay safe.