By Annette Steinmetz

Police officers are often “first Responders” to a vast variety of emergencies. They never really know what situation they could be called to, or happen to come upon. It could be anything from a bank robbery, a shooting, a car accident, domestic violence and many times motor vehicle fires. In such incidents as motor vehicle fires, the police officers’ actions may be critical while waiting for the fire department to arrive. There are a few things about the dangers, the causes, and how to handle the situation, which should be considered.


Although movie scenes have us convinced that the first thing that will occur in a vehicle fire is that the gas tank will explode, this rarely happens unless the vehicle becomes fully involved. This does not mean that car fires should be taken lightly, though. Each year six hundred people are killed and 1,200 firefighters are injured in motor vehicles fires.

There are many dangers to car fires. The obvious is that the occupants could get burned. Fire in a vehicle can generate heat up to 1,500 degrees F. Keep in mind that most foods are cooked at temperatures under 500 degrees F, and water boils at 212 degrees F. Any exposure to heat above 120 degrees to the skin will damage its cells and cause some degree of burning. Not only is there danger within the vehicle, but flames can also shoot out from the vehicle without warning and injure people close by. Clearing people out and away from the vehicle fire is the number one concern. Also, do not take a chance of retrieving personal belongings at this time.

Extreme heat may cause parts of the vehicle to explode. When the liquid and/or gas of enclosed cylinders of vehicles reach high temperatures, they can rupture and shoot debris great distances. Flying bumper shocks, strut cartridges, shock absorbers, brake cylinders, hatchback door struts, two-piece tire rims, magnesium wheels, drive shafts, grease seals, axles and engine parts can cause serious damage or even death. In vehicles manufactured after 1973, bumper shock absorbers have been known to remain compressed after impact and may suddenly eject when temperatures are not even extreme. It is important that involved vehicles only be approached from the side.

Never open the hood of a vehicle when fire is suspected in the engine compartment. Not only will the oxygen intensify the fire, but also the hood struts can become dangerous projectiles if they explode. Even firefighters who come to vehicle fires in full gear have been injured. In one such incident a fire Lieutenant attempted to open the hood of a car when something suddenly struck his left hand and left side of his body. The casing of a strut had exploded from the vehicle and actually impaled his heavy leather-gloved hand, leaving about seven inches of metal protruding from each side of his hand. As he moved his hand, the hot metal object brushed against his cotton shirt, burning it. When the crewmembers realized the cylinder-shaped object was burning him, they cooled it down with the attack line. The damage of the third and fourth degree burns to the tissues and bones of his hands caused the Lieutenant to undergo numerous skin grafts and surgeries, including scraping the burned bones. Due to the injuries he sustained from this one moment at a vehicle fire, the Lieutenant also had many hours of physical therapy to regain dexterity in his hand. (1) Cars are a lot easier to repair or replace than people, so don’t take any unnecessary chances to save the vehicle.

One thing many people don’t consider is the fact that fires in motor vehicles can produce toxic gases. The burning of synthetic materials, that many vehicles are made of, emit poisonous gases. Carbon monoxide, a colorless, tasteless, odorless gas, is a main by-product of fires, and can be fatal in high concentrations in closed areas such as the inside of a burning car.


The causes of vehicle fires are numerous. Faulty electrical wiring and overheating are the main reasons many cars ignite. Other causes include: brakes overheating, cigarette smokers’ accidents, etc. In winter months, cars that are warmed up for too long have started fires from the catalytic converters igniting materials on the floorboard of the passenger compartments. In most instances, it takes many minutes for an enclosed fire to spread from one compartment to another and/or intensify, allowing “First Responders” time to knock down or extinguish the fire.


Extinguishers are rated for the size of the fire they can handle. It is recommended to use a portable extinguisher approved for use on “Class B” and “Class C” fires. The “C” indicates that it can be used on electrical fires. The higher the number rating found on the label of the fire extinguisher, the larger fire it can put out. The higher-rated models are often heavier.

Never put yourself in danger when using a fire extinguisher. If the vehicle is on an uneven surface, try to work from the uphill side to avoid standing in any flammable liquids, such as oil or even gas that may be leaking from the car. Do not open the hood or trunk of a car if you suspect a fire within these compartments. Air could rush in and cause the fire to enlarge.

Recent developments have produced a tool for “First Responders” that connects to portable extinguishers. This tool pierces the hood, trunk or passenger compartments. This allows one person to safely and quickly attack car fires from the side and discharge extinguishing agents directly to the source of the fire without opening the involved compartments. If the car is fully involved in fire do not attempt to attack the fire with an extinguisher!

The standard use of an extinguisher is to stand six to eight feet away from visible fire, and to the side of the vehicle, using the four-step PASS procedure:

PULL the pin out. This unlocks the operating lever and allows you to discharge the extinguishing agent. Some extinguishers have other devices that prevent inadvertent operation.

AIM low. Point the nozzle or hose down at the base of the fire.

SQUEEZE from side to side. Use this sweeping motion, still aiming at the base of the fire, until the flames are out. Watch that the fire does not re-ignite.

Remember, disposable fire extinguishers can only be used once, and should be replaced after use. Rechargeable models must be serviced after every use. Fire extinguishers also require routine maintenance. Read your manual or ask your dealer on how to inspect, service and check the pressure of your extinguishers once a month.


Safety is, of course, the main concern in vehicle fires; safety for the passengers, safety for the people nearby, and safety for the police officers that are often the “First Responders.” While waiting for the fire department, you can do several things. Shut off the engine to the vehicle and clear all people out and away from it. Keep clear of the high hazard areas at the front and back of the vehicle. And finally, do not put yourself in danger while using a fire extinguisher and/or extinguishing devices. Stand six to eight few away, aim at the source of the fire, and do not open hoods or trunks if you suspect fires within.

Most of the statistics included in this article are available in pamphlets (L-202) available from the United States Fire Administration. If you would like more information on this subject, you can contact your local fire department or write to:

United States Fire Administration
Federal Emergency Management Agency
16825 South Seton Ave.
Emittsburg, Maryland 21727

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