Small Towns, Small Hazards? Not a Chance! – Part 2

Feb. 1, 2005

Just a car fire...then an explosion with a firefighter injured!

“I heard a loud bang, sending a jolt through my body.”

As we continue with part 2, we are looking at some smaller-town fire departments and some close calls they experienced. This month, we go to an all-volunteer fire department that responds to over 500 calls annually. This response was to a car fire. All of us respond to car fires regularly — and probably operate in a similar manner. Actually, the fact that these firefighters were fully geared up sets a better example than some.

Photo courtesy of Windsor Locks FD Bunker pants showing entry point in upper left thigh.
Normally, we don’t identify the firefighters or departments involved in this column. However, this month, we are going to look at a fire that occurred in Connecticut just a few months ago, when firefighters responded to what was going to be a “typical” response to a car fire. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Due to the availability of photos and details, we thank Chief Gary Ruggiero, Firefighter Al Roberts and especially Firefighter Drew Hill of the Windsor Locks Fire Department (, to whom who we wish a quick recovery. Also thanks to Firehouse® Magazine Contributing Editor Ron Moore for his technical input for this month’s column.

These accounts have been provided by the Windsor Locks Fire Department members as noted above. Chief Goldfeder’s comments follow:

Chief Gary Ruggiero: On Sunday, Nov. 21, 2004, the Windsor Locks Fire Department responded to a reported car fire. Upon arrival, the fire was confined to the engine compartment. During gaining access to the engine compartment, one of my firefighters had just released the hood safety latch when the hood shock strut exploded and fired into the firefighter, striking him in his upper thigh and piercing completely through his leg and bunker pants with the approximate 18-inch-long strut. He is home recuperating and we will not know how extensive his injury is for awhile yet.

I wish to make other departments mindful that these struts are gas filled and are common. The fire and accident remain under investigation. We wish to pass this along to other firefighters to be aware of the potential for these shocks to fail when exposed to fire. I am just grateful that this accident did not have a worse outcome.

Firefighter Drew Hill: It was early evening on a Sunday. While I was lying on the couch relaxing before another work week, our fire department was dispatched to 269 Main St. for a reported car fire in the parking lot of the gas station/mini-mart. The police department was also dispatched at the same time. My wife had left a minute or two earlier and I thought I would pass her at the end of the street. No luck. She had already made the turn.

Photo courtesy of Windsor Locks FD The actual strut entering and exiting the bunker pants.
I proceeded to head downtown. Dispatch gave an update about halfway to the scene that there were exposure problems. It crossed my mind that this car may be at or near one of the gas pumps. That elevated the adrenaline just a touch. I was the third to arrive on scene. The chief and one of the lieutenants had arrived moments earlier. I parked in the grass to keep the area open for the arriving apparatus and proceeded to don my bunker gear.

Ready to go to work, I asked the lieutenant as he was completing his 360 if we should pull the hood cable before it burns through. He stated that he had already pulled it and it did unlatch. There was not a whole lot of fire under the hood at this time. The clerk at the store and the car’s driver had made an attempt with a dry chemical extinguisher. The lieutenant and I did one more 360, discussing a course of action.

The car was parked sideways in the lot, well away from the gas pumps. The only possible exposure problem was the building and the propane tank rental cage, but they were not in any immediate danger with such a low volume of fire under the hood. We stood at about a 45-degree angle off of the front bumper at about 20-30 feet away. The fire seemed to be at the rear of the engine compartment near the fire wall. The front bumper was not involved. We were worried about the new impact bumpers. I knelt down on one knee to peek at the underside of the car and to see if we had good access to the safety catch on the latch. There was some fire dripping on the ground from the melting plastic and we had an unobstructed access to the hood latch.

The first-due engine was making its final turn to the gas station when we informed command that we would go ahead and open the hood. I proceeded to the front of the vehicle and attempted to open the hood. At the same time I put my hand on the latch, I heard a loud bang and felt like someone had just kicked me as hard as they could in the inner thigh, sending a jolt through my body. The first thought that crossed my mind was that the right front tire let go and that flying rubber had caught my leg.

I immediately backed away from the car, then looked down when my leg started to get hot. Our chief was not more than 15 feet away at the time. As he turned to see what happened, I told him that some thing shot out of the car. That is when I noticed the rod protruding from both sides of my upper thigh. Instinct took over at that time and I reached down and pulled the rod out, throwing it to the ground in anger and then realizing that I just went against all the medical training I have had by removing it.

I shouted to the chief to call the medics, that I took something in the leg. As I was trying to walk toward the chief, my left foot quit working about the third step and I started to go down. Almost instantly, there were three or four firemen helping me to the ground and removing my bunker gear. The police officer on scene brought his trauma bag over from the cruiser and the guys started to cut my pants off. There was an entrance and exit wound, but very little bleeding. The skin around the entrance wound was charred black just like a gunshot wound at close range. The medics arrived a few minutes later and I was transported to the trauma center in Hartford. I am slowly recovering at home after a short stay in the hospital for antibiotics and observation.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder’s observations and communications with the writers and others regarding this incident:

When I first was contacted regarding this incident – and confirmed the firefighter survived – I thought back to the many car fires I have responded to, some just within the last few months. And I thought that our own firefighters and myself may have done the same exact thing.

Photo courtesy of Windsor Locks FD The upper strut is one that exploded. The lower strut is the one that did not explode and that firefighters removed from the car’s hood.
As I received additional e-mails on this, someone wrote me and said, “But it was just a car fire” – and that made me think. With rare exception, car fires are nothing worth any risk on our part. When we do have a victim trapped, the priority is to protect the firefighters and to try and get a line between the fire and the victim, then put it out. But those situations are rare. Typically, the car is unoccupied and a write-off. Of course, there is the manageable risk of our response and operating on the roadways (drive carefully, wear seatbelts, protect and block the work area with large apparatus). But as far as the actual tactics, we simply need to put it out without risking our lives.

In the late 1970s, I responded to a car fire where our fire department and the local airport fire department both responded. As we responded, we could see a column of smoke indicating a working car fire. As we approached the scene, so did the airport apparatus (a combination structural/CFR pumper), and as they pulled up to the car fire, their driver pulled a lever from inside the cab and poof – like magic – the car fire was under control. He simply covered it with 20 seconds’ worth of foam from a monitor mounted above the cab. After my crew and I stood there looking like disappointed schoolboys who missed out on a fun night their dates, one of the firefighters said, “Well, it was just a car fire.” And that now makes even more sense.

Naturally, we are normally expected to put out car fires – but we must do it with the attitude that no one is going to get hurt while we do it. Actually, we should handle all runs like that, but specifically a car fire should be handled quickly and effectively, just as that CFR crew did back in the 1970s – without unnecessary risk. These days, cars are even more of a hazard. Who knows what someone has inside a car? We have to act as though it may be bad – real bad – and protect our personnel with that attitude.

In this case, it was an engine compartment fire and the hood was closed. The firefighter struck by the strut was directly in front of the burning vehicle. In another known incident, a firefighter was standing with a charged line right beside a firefighter working to force a hood. The fire was burning under the hood, again, in the engine compartment. The strut failed and the firefighter working on opening the hood was injured. In this month’s close call, the firefighter was forcing the hood while standing in front of the car.

The suggested solution is for firefighters to arrive fully geared up – no exposed skin, an SCBA on air, a charged line (1¾-inch or an appropriate foam line) and don’t stand in front of the car. Firefighters should operate out of “the line of fire,” so to speak. Depending upon conditions, firefighters may bend a side hood lip up to gain access (use caution, as this also may disturb a strut), but no matter what, while it is being done – flow the line! Allow that extra measure of protection and cooling while opening up from the sides or simply just fight the fire from there.

Firefighting tools are available today where members simply puncture the hood (or other areas) with a penetrating nozzle to get to the fire, allowing quick access, cooling and control with increased safety to firefighters. Additionally, lightweight portable foam packs have made application of foam as easy and simple as it ever has been in our business. Trunks, although not normally where the fire is located, and the rear of cars can also present similar problems and hazards to operating firefighters. Other operational considerations include:

  • Protect and block the scene from firefighters being struck (think about lines that come off cross-lays – and the danger of firefighters stretching them out into oncoming traffic).
Photo courtesy of Windsor Locks FD The actual strut that went through the firefighter’s leg, shown with a 12-inch ruler.
Water supply (think about where more water is coming from in your response areas and pre-plan before you have a vehicle or any kind of fire, not when you run out. Based upon highway access, you may have other companies respond to locations off the highway-and stretch you a line). If you can, determine whether the car is powered by gasoline, diesel fuel, liquid natural gas or liquid petroleum gas and cool the tank from a safe distance. Pressure-relief devices may create a blowtorch effect if they operate – if they don’t, you have the potential for a BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion). You may have access to shut the fuel off by a valve located near the storage tank when safe – if not, cool and control the fire and maintain a safe operating area. As at an auto accident, safely stabilize the vehicle as soon as possible. When the incident is under control, there may be advantages to moving apparatus to a safer location within the scene, if initial placement is hazardous.

I am sure someone is reading this right now thinking, “Aw, just pop the hood and put it out.” But they have never had a pressurized energy-absorbing bumper or strut pierce their leg. I would bet that most firefighters who have had struts pierce their legs handle car fires differently today. They learned the hard way – but we can learn the easy way-from them.

Firehouse® Magazine’s extrication expert, Ron Moore, reminds us that gas struts are found not only as hood hinges, but can be on vehicles serving as hatchback and lift gate supports. Even convertibles can use pressurized struts as part of their ragtop support structure. No gas struts have any relief device. Their pressure relief operates when they BLEVE.

Without a fire situation, these struts are also a concern during vehicle rescue. They can fly off explosively when cut with extrication tools, just the same as if they had failed during fire conditions. A strut that is extended, meaning that the hood is open, for example, will rupture along the thicker portion of the strut casing when exposed to fire. It is least likely to explode apart when in the extended position. The most explosive failures occur to closed or essentially compressed struts, such as when the hood is closed.

While it may not be possible for most of us to pull up to a car fire and make it suddenly go away, we can take additional measures to ensure that our members are fully protected when operating, that they have plenty of flow to protect them, and that they know the less safe and more safe areas in which to operate.

After all, it’s just a car fire.

Magnesium Explodes During Vehicle Fire

Russell Accardi

On Dec. 2, 2004 Delray Beach, FL, Fire-Rescue firefighters were extinguishing a fire involving a Jeep Cherokee when magnesium reacted with the water, causing an explosion as the firefighters were next to it. The firefighter in the photo was caught in the exploding magnesium, but because he was fully protected by his personal protective equipment, he was not injured. His bunker coat, hood and other components were damaged by the fire. Continuous application of water extinguished the fire, but there were several more reactions before the fire was extinguished.

Photos by Battalion Chief Russell Accardi

William Goldfeder, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He is a battalion 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 and 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 & survival website Goldfeder may be contacted at

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