N.J. Lieutenant: Use Caution During Roadside Calls

As a firefighter, James Kirsch said he is always on the lookout for what kinds of dangers he might encounter during roadside fires, accidents and other emergencies involving vehicles.

Coverage of Firehouse Expo 2012

In a presentation at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore called "Hell on Wheels," Kirsch, a lieutenant with the Bergenfield (N.J.) Fire Department taught participants about the unexpected hazards firefighters might encounter on the nation's highways.

"I find myself saying ‘What the hell is that,' and how would I deal with it if it's on fire," Kirsch said. "You really have to be careful because you have no idea what's inside."

Because of the unknown factors involved with vehicle fires and emergencies, Kirsch stressed that that full personal protective equipment, including SCBAs is a requirement.

"I don't want someone near and dear to me wiping my ass because I burned my hands because I didn't wear my gloves," Kirsch said. "You've got to be careful."

Even something as unassuming as a recycling truck could be a potentially life threatening hazard because of unknown contents. I might be logical to think it's filled with bottle, metal, cans and plastics, but Kirsch said he once heard of a recycling truck carrying heavy-duty nuclear waste material.

Apparently, someone placed radioactive material in the middle of metal waiting for recycling, and the proprietor stockpiled the metal waiting for the market price to rise. When he transported the material to be reclaimed, the establishments radioactive monitors went into an alarm mode and the hauler took the contaminated material back to his business. A three-day full radiological response, with evacuations, followed, Kirsch said.

Kirsch said firefighters should look for clues that might tip them off that they're dealing with something more than the obvious. A pickup truck with a logo or a business name on its side might be much more than a simple truck fire depending on its contents. Even landscapers could be carrying pesticides and almost all carry a lot of fuel for equipment.

"You might have a pickup truck on fire that's carrying an extra couple of hundred gallons of fuel," he said, noting that trucks on job sites are often used for refilling heavy equipment.

An innocent looking U-Haul is often a "rolling garage" with all kinds of hazardous materials inside, he said.

"All bets are off because we just don't know what they contain," he said, reminding the audience that the explosives used in the Oklahoma City bombing were transported and detonated in a U-Haul truck.

Even UPS and FedEx delivery trucks with mixed cargo can be very dangerous, Kirsch said. He explained that a delivery truck recently delivered cases of gas detector monitor calibration gases in compressed cylinders. If a fire had occurred in that truck, cylinders would have been become missiles, popping off in all directions.

"We have no idea what is in those trucks," Kirsch said. "It could be legal or illegal."

Trucks used by utilities, like bucket trucks and cranes, present their own hazards and they are found everywhere, Kirsch said.

Hydraulic fluid used to operate equipment is under pressure and is flammable, Kirsch said, adding that a line burst in fire conditions can send flaming liquid up to 30 feet. "I don't want that stuff flying at me without my PPE on," Kirsch said, stressing that safety is paramount in all hazardous situations.

Cranes can tip over and take power lines out too and utility workers taking care of trees or utilities can be electrocuted. Kirsch said the objective is to keep the rescuers safe while helping the victims. Watch out for downed power lines when encountering a scene with a utility truck involved.

Recreational vehicles, or campers, can also be hazardous when on fire, not only because of the fire load, but also because of the kinds of things they might contain, including propane and large quantities of diesel fuel. Additionally, because some are as large as a small home, they can be just like house fires with all kinds of things burning inside, Kirsch said.

Refrigerated trucks, because of their construction to keep items inside cold, are usually virtually air tight, Kirsch said. So, when they catch fire, or are pressurized with smoke, doors and openings can burst open violently harming anything in their paths, including firefighters, Kirsch said, ripping a page from recent firefighting news headlines.

The refrigerant in the trucks area also hazardous, hence the repetitive call for use of SCBAs, he said.

Roadside food trucks are also very hazardous in fire conditions typically having large, on-board supplies of propane and cooking oils. And, on the other end, garbage trucks are dangerous when on fire, not only because of their hydraulic-powered packers, but for the content they carry.

"When you get called to a garbage truck fire, the best thing you can see is the pile of garbage burning in the middle of the road because that means it's out of the truck," he said.

Welding trucks, pool maintenance vehicles and a myriad of service related vehicles each present unique challenges, Kirsch said.

"Look for the clues," he said. "If you've got placards, great, but if you don't have them, it doesn't mean it's not dangerous."

One of the most unusual mobile hazards Kirsch has encountered is a mobile electrical substation, a vehicle, or device, public utilities can place anywhere in the grid to help with power distribution, he said.

"And it's usually done without regard where it is, like in front of a school or a day care or something like that," he said.

Mobile substations are hazardous because they can handle up to 26,000 volts and they are often filled with hazardous materials.

Kirsch said that whenever there's a vehicle fire, or any kind of vehicle emergency, its wheels need to be chocked. He showed a video of a burning truck rolling into a fire engine and another box truck on an incline losing its brakes and rolling across a busy four-lane roadway almost hitting a building. And when it comes to rolling, Kirsch said he doesn't allow anyone to stand or work in front of vehicles for fear of it rolling or for fear of bumpers or hydraulic pistons for hoods and doors launching at responders after being damaged.

Above all else, Kirsch said firefighters need to be observant when it comes to vehicle fires and emergencies. Complacency can kill or seriously injure he said.

"You don't know what you have in your district unless you go out and look around," Kirsch said, noting that he's often known to take the engine company out patrolling to find things like the mobile substation. "You've got to keep your eyes open and look for the clues."