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Fighting Fires in Vehicle Service Facilities

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 any 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.

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

Conclusion

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.

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