Safety Service Patrol Perspectives: Responding to Vehicle Fires
I very recently encountered an incident that played a large role in my writing about safety service patrols (SSPs) responding to vehicle fires. I was on routine patrol about an hour before the end of shift. It was nighttime and I was monitoring urgent PD radio traffic about a possible CMV (commercial motor vehicle) stalled in a travel lane very near to my location. In less than 30 seconds I had a visual on the stalled CMV blocking a travel lane on the opposite side of the Interstate. I also quickly realized that it may have just been struck from behind by a vehicle as I saw smoke beginning to rise from the rear of the trailer as I passed. In less than an entire minute I had made a visual confirmation, radioed PD, confirmed the location, requested Fire/EMS for a crash with possible fire involved, turned around at a median crossing, advised my Dispatch (TMC) of the same, called for my additional SSP units on our radio, and responded to the location.
I determined quickly upon my arrival from bystanders screaming that there indeed was a victim trapped. There was very limited chance of extinguishing this quickly growing fuel fed fire that resulted from the high impact collision. I did not grab the fire extinguishers immediately. My first priority was the task of establishing traffic control, and ensuring all other persons and vehicles were cleared out of the immediate area of the involved vehicle(s). I was able to utilize my SSP vehicle in a left angled blocking position across two right lanes and then directed a Tractor trailer rig to block the three remaining lanes. I cleared everyone else out of the immediate area except those who were trying in vain to stop the spreading fire unsuccessfully.
I radioed my initial scene size up report to my dispatch of a confirmed vehicle collision with entrapment involving a CMV with fire showing on the ground and the engine compartment of the vehicle. It was at this point that I knew there would also be limited chance of a rescue effort and I looked for access as the fire grew upward through the engine area. After forcing open a jammed rear passenger door, my initial assessment was that there were no other victims in the vehicle except the driver. After removing items from the rear seat area and clearing a path, I spoke to and made an attempt to rescue the driver from the right rear passenger area; the rescue attempt seemed to last for about thirty or forty seconds and then was cut short by the thick black smoke and rapidly spreading fire conditions which had not been stopped or slowed enough using available fire extinguishers on hand and from bystanders.
I could not breathe, and the heat and flames were consuming the front interior portion. At this point I reconsidered my own safety, and I had to stop all my rescue efforts and quickly refocus my effort into keeping others back and clearing a path for responding fire/rescue vehicles to access the scene.
In 2018 there were a total number of 212,500 vehicle fires in the U.S. This number reflects the total number of vehicle fires. Eighty-five percent or 181,500 of these fires involved highway vehicles such as cars, trucks, motorcycles, recreational vehicles in transit, buses, and other vehicles intended for use on roadways. Those 181,500 highway vehicle fires caused 490 deaths; 1,300 injuries; and $1.4 billion in direct property damage. Fire departments responded to an average of one highway vehicle fire every 2 minutes and 46 seconds. The total number of highway vehicle fires did not occur on an Interstate or divided highway. The number that occurred in these locations is around twenty percent or roughly 36,300. That equates to almost 100 highway vehicle fires occurring on U.S. Interstates and divided highways daily or one about every 6 hours.
Almost two-thirds of car fire deaths resulted from fires caused by crashes or related events. In addition, 79 percent of the deaths from large truck fires were caused by crashes. A disproportionate share of car fire deaths and large truck fires occurred on highways suggesting a link between fires and high-speed impacts (NFPA 2018).
Safety Service Patrols nationwide respond to a great number of these vehicle fires, and the traffic congestion that is caused by them on a daily basis. The TDOT Region 3 'HELP' Unit that I patrol with as a supervisor has responded to 164 vehicle fires in the first 10 months of 2020 in the Middle Tennessee area alone. Statewide, TDOT 'HELP' responds to an average of over 250 vehicle fires each year.
When responding to vehicle fires on highways SSP's have many factors to consider like approaching traffic, and hazards from the vehicle fire, such as spills, smoke obscurity, potential explosions, and debris. Traffic control must be established early and planned with these considerations in mind. When there is active fire involved in any roadway response, the responder's situational awareness is key to performing duties in a safe manner. Blocking and safe vehicle positioning will play a vital role in the safety of the firefighters who will require sufficient room to perform fire suppression duties. Proper high visibility apparel should be worn by SSP in their function as traffic control. Fire personnel should wear NFPA 1971 compliant turn out gear with retro-reflective material while engaged in fire suppression activities. Firefighters should don high visibility garments on roads and highways when not exposed to fire, flame, heat, or hazardous materials.
Another consideration for SSP's when blocking and safe positioning at vehicle fire incidents is the need for the SSP and fire apparatus to be positioned in an uphill, upwind, safe, and large enough area to accommodate them while engaged in their duties. This can be challenging, and conditions will change rapidly in these situations. Best practice states to NOT park too close to involved vehicle[s] and to park at a minimum distance of 100 feet away from vehicles that are on fire, due to risk of explosion, running fuel fire, or other factors. This should be noted in the initial scene assessment, and re-evaluated during the incident.
Advance warning and high visibility temporary traffic control devices will be extremely important when providing traffic control at a vehicle fire incident given the smoke/steam conditions and should be another early consideration for SSP responders at an incident of this type. SSP best practices says that handling safety issues that may occur from smoke and steam obscuration can be done by revising traffic control, deploying spotters in areas with better conditions, and utilizing additional blocking vehicles to protect exposed areas of the incident work zone. If an SSP responder is first on scene, an initial and then a full scene size up/assessment should be done with pertinent, detailed information communicated as early as possible. Include information on vehicle types, fire conditions, type of cargo involved, spills, etc. If SSP arrives before the fire department best practice says to use extreme caution when approaching a vehicle fire. This approach may be done to determine if there is a life safety emergency such as an occupant in or near the vehicle on fire. Best practice also says that SSP personnel should be trained in the use of hand held fire extinguishers and the proper identification of fire and fire extinguisher types, including size up for fire attack in the event of a trapped vehicle occupant.
We must not lose focus of our priorities in these situations. In the role of an SSP responder at all types of highway or roadway incidents: Our personal safety is first; other responder's safety is next; then the safety of the approaching motorists, the safety of victims, and involved persons. Our main objective in this function is not fire suppression but rather responding safely, and then protecting the lives of others beginning with the utilization of smart, quick, deployment and establishment of a temporary incident management area (TIMA). We must train for these types of scenarios, and also conduct after action reviews on incidents like this in order to learn and build upon established best practices. Another excellent way to train for these incidents is to complete the 'Special Circumstances: Safe Operations for Vehicle Fires' training module on The Responder Safety Learning Institute. This is all FREE to ALL responders and can be completed online. There are dozens of related training modules that are related to the SSP functions of Traffic Incident Management.
Safety Service Patrols are a vital component in the response to these types of highway and roadway incidents. Training, and the use of best practices can have a positive effect on the safe response, responder safety, management, and mitigation of these and other highway incidents by SSP units. Keep training, stay safe, and be prepared for the next incident you will encounter.
- Evarts, Ben. Fire Loss in the United States During 2018. Quincy, MA: NFPA, 2019. Available at: https://nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Data-research-and-tools/US-Fire-Problem/Fire-loss-in-the-United-States.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Traffic Safety Facts 2017: A Compilation of Motor Vehicle Crash Data, DOT HS 812 806, 2019. p. 10. Accessed at: https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/#!/ on January 28, 2020.
About the author John M. Sullivan: John M. Sullivan is a Highway Response Supervisor 1 with the Tennessee Department of Transportation 'HELP' Unit serving Nashville and Middle Tennessee since 1999. Mr. Sullivan is also a Lieutenant FF with the Pegram FD, and a TIMS, EVOC, and Vehicle Extrication Instructor. John has been married 20 years and he and his wife Teresa have a teenaged daughter.