Dealing with a burning squad car

Contemplate this scenario.  You come upon a car beside the road that’s billowing smoke.  It’s worst case scenario — the vehicle is a police prowler.  Presently you don’t see much in the way of flames, but you know in the back of your mind it could easily be the early stage of a major car fire. 

Or how about this.  Your patrol vehicle is first to the scene of a fully-involved house fire and all of a sudden a fireworks show breaks out when the occupant’s ammo cache begins cooking off? 

Neither of these are “hypothetical” events.  I won’t go too deep into the latter except to say that firefighters battling a recent house fire in Napa County (Calif.) had to contend with an armory’s worth of gunpowder and ammunition within the inferno. 

However, I do want to look a little at the first example, because a recent fiery crash involving a Tennessee Highway Patrol unit brought to light something to keep in mind should you face such a nightmarish scenario involving a police vehicle. Officers who helped rescue their trapped brother from inside the burning squad reported that as the intensity of the fire rapidly increased, shotgun ammo and emergency flares inside the vehicle began “cooking off.”

Obviously, creating distance from a car fire after freeing a trapped victim will be a reflexive response, but if you’re dealing with a police vehicle, remember that things like ammo, flares, and pressurized containers will likely be inside. If you’re faced with a burning police vehicle get as far away as soon as possible after completing or evaluating the feasibility of necessary rescue efforts.  Be sure that bystanders/onlookers do the same.

Some Things to Consider
The only thing I truly know about fire is that when it is used properly, it cooks my steaks.  Consequently, I inquired with my friends over at FireRescue1 to get some thoughts from the men and women whose expertise in this area is peerless.  In a July 2008 post for his ‘Close Calls on Camera’ column, Jason Poremba — a captain in an engine company of a volunteer fire department in New York — lamented that “firefighters are getting hurt as a result of aggressive attacks on car fires without full protection and with a sense of complacency.” 

Poremba’s advice to his firefighter audience is equally valid here on PoliceOne.  Paraphrasing him somewhat, he cautions that some things to consider when approaching a fire include:

Positioning:  Wind, leading fluids, exposure issues — how should we position our equipment and make the attack?
Life Hazard:  Occupants or no occupants — how aggressive do we really need to be?
Type of Car:  Airbags, struts, bumpers, tires, hatchbacks, magnesium blocks, two piece rims, green vehicles
The Unknown:  By virtue of the type of vehicle you’re looking at, what is the likelihood of it containing fertilizer, propane tanks, gas containers, weapons, ammo, or other hazardous materials. 

Poremba tells FR1 Members to “assume every vehicle contains a BBQ tank and fertilizer.” 

We don’t have to “assume” anything about approaching a police car involved in fire.  Just like there’s at least one firearm at every police contact, there’s a whole bunch of stuff in a burning squad that can ruin your whole day. 

Assess the scene, and adapt your strategy to suit the situation. 

Stay safe out there my friends. 

Oh, yeah, by the way... Big time thanks and praise to those cops and paramedics who pulled that trooper from his wrecked squad.  Heroes, all.  

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, responsible for providing police training content and expert analysis on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 900 feature articles and tactical tips. Doug is also responsible for planning and recording the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, as well as being the on-air host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug also works closely with the PoliceOne Academy to develop training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

Doug regularly represents PoliceOne as a public speaker in a variety of forums and is available for media interviews — he has appeared on numerous local and national radio and television news programs, and has been quoted in a host of print publications. 

Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

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