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Is It Time to Change Our Training Yet? Part 3: Fuel Tanks

Is It Time to Change Our Training Yet? Part 3: Fuel Tanks

A melted gas tank following a vehicle fire. (Photo: Lee Junkins)

Lee Junkins, Midsouth Rescue Technologies

Is it time to change out training Yet?

Level Ground

In part #1 we seen the 2004 Ford Ranger in which the airbags deployed in the mop up stages, Fig 1 above show the plastic gas tank from the same vehicle. This tank dumped about ten gallons of gas on the ground, creating a circle of fire about 25 feet in diameter.

I have two manufacturers that supply me with special suppression agents for demonstrations in my classes; these products are both extremely good, we burn a pile of ten car tires until they are boiling with black smoke, then using these agents put them out with a 2 ½ gallon water can extinguisher in about eight seconds and lay your bare hand on the tires. We used one of these on this tank and it still flared up seven times. In investigating this we found that because of the shape and location of the tank there were pockets of fuel that could not be reached with the extinguishing agent and therefore were not affected by it. Firefighters must be aware that this situation is going to exist with every tank. As plastic begins to melt it will sag forming pockets, each of these pockets will hold a certain amount of fuel until it melts through and being mounted under the vehicle and inside the frame work, it is impossible to reach every part of the tank with any type of extinguishing agent.

Down Hill Slope

On August 8, 1999, three volunteer fire fighters were burned, one (the victim) critically, while trying to control a Recreational Vehicle (RV) fire beside a single-family dwelling. The victim died 8 days later due to full thickness burns (third degree) over 96% of his body. Two volunteer fire departments responded to this incident: Volunteer Fire Department #1 (VFD #1) with Engine 1, staffed by a driver/operator; and Volunteer Fire Department #2 (VFD #2) with Engine 2, staffed by a driver/operator and one fire fighter (the victim) who rode as the passenger in the cab of Engine 2. Another fire fighter from VFD #2 responded to the scene in a privately owned vehicle (POV). Engine 1 arrived on the scene and was positioned in the driveway of the dwelling. The driver/operator used the booster line to protect the exposed side of the dwelling and then tried to control the RV fire. Engine 2 arrived less than 5 minutes later and also took a position in the driveway. While fire fighters from Engine 2 attempted to place in service the pre-connected 1½-inch attack line from the rear hose bed of the apparatus, the RV’s gasoline tank ruptured, releasing about 50 gallons of gasoline. The gasoline ignited, and the burning fuel spilled down the inclined driveway. All three members of VFD #2 suffered thermal injuries.

Inside the Garage

Four Missouri City, Texas, firefighters entered a garage from a side door to battle a vehicle fire inside, within seconds the plastic gas tank dumped its fuel in the floor engulfing all of them in flames.

As bad as they are, these tanks are not the only dangers the fuel system presents us with. As was mentioned before, these are sealed systems that do not vent into the air.

Unlike the old carburetor with a chock, today’s vehicles are fuel injected and must have pressurized gas available at all times, in order to start. These vehicles are equipped with electric fuel pumps inside the tank. Once the fuel passes the pump into the fuel lines it can not return and until the injector on the engine is mashed to a certain point that fuel can not enter the return lines. Therefore pressurized gas is held in the fuel lines at all times. Most of these fuel lines are also made of plastic and run under the vehicle from the tank in the rear all the way to the engine in the front and contain from 15-95 psi of pressure at all times.

Vehicle fires at one time were a firefighter’s fun and games. As you can begin to see, today’s vehicle fires can be some of the most dangerous calls we will respond to and many changes are going to have to be made, not only in our approach to the vehicle but in the positioning of our apparatus, our entry into garages, our methods of attack and our absolute necessity for full protective gear.

In Part 4 of this series we will look at the extensive use of Magnesium in today’s vehicle.

Lee Junkins joined the fire service in February 1964 at the age of 18. He is currently a certified NREMT, and certified tech in Rope Rescue, Trench Rescue, Confined Space Rescue, and Auto Extrication. He holds Advanced Firefighter Certification, Level II Instructor, and Certification Coordinator, certificates with the Texas State Fireman’s and Fire Marshals’ Association. He is a member of the National Fire Academy Alumni, with courses such as Challenges for Training Officers, and Public Education Leadership.