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New type of extinguisher helps police fight car fires

Patrol units are often the first to arrive on accident scenes

By Benita Y. Williams
The Kansas City Star

LENEXA, Kan. — Sgt. David Ogilvie was the first police officer on the scene of a fiery August car crash that left three people dead on Interstate 435 in Lenexa.

When he arrived, two vans and a car were ablaze and someone was alive inside one of them.

"All of a sudden, out of the window of one van came a hand and a face," Ogilvie said.

From the trunk of his patrol car, Ogilvie grabbed a fire extinguisher, the traditional kind that sprays a dry powder to squelch the flames. Others at the scene, police officers and onlookers, did the same.

They all failed.

"We used probably 10 fire extinguishers," Ogilvie said. "We basically had to stand there and watch this guy burn to death, which is not what we do. It's a very helpless feeling."

Now police in Lenexa, where last summer three fatal accidents ended in flames, are acquiring extinguishers that they hope will be more effective. They are the same kind used at races such as the Indianapolis 500.

Lenexa paid $6,000 for 25 Cold Fire brand extinguishers and a drum of the fire-eating liquid they dispense.

Officials say the equipment not only snuffs fires more quickly but keeps the fires from reigniting and cools the metal so rescuers can reach the victims more easily.

Lenexa is possibly the first area police department to trade its traditional extinguishers for Cold Fire ones.

"We don't know for sure that, even if we had that fire extinguisher, it would have put it (the fire) out," Ogilvie said of the August crash. "But maybe we could have put it out long enough to keep the fire away from him until the fire trucks got there. ... You always want to have the best equipment possible at the scene."

Officer Ted Gardner, who researched the new extinguishers for the Lenexa Police Department, said the department needed the new equipment because auto accident fires are especially difficult to fight.

First, highways can become so congested that fire trucks have a difficult time reaching the scene. Police cars, which are already patrolling the area, often get there first. And although most vehicles today are equipped with switches that upon impact shut off fuel to the engine, Gardner said motorists still are in jeopardy from other sources of fire.

"The fuel line could rupture and hit the manifold or engine, or a spark from the impact could ignite it," Gardner said. "Metal against metal gives off sparks, and engines run at 100 degrees."

According to the National Fire Protection Association, most vehicle fires arise from mechanical or electrical problems, but those involving crashes are more deadly. Though collisions and rollovers caused only 3 percent of the 266,500 vehicle fires reported in 2004, they accounted for 57 percent of the 520 deaths from vehicle fires that year.

All the Lenexa Police Department's extinguishers, old and new, are approved for use on oil and fuel fires, but the difference is how their chemicals extinguish the flames.

Fires need three things to burn: heat, fuel and oxygen.

FireFreeze Worldwide Inc. manufactures Cold Fire. Stephanie Monrad, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey-based company, said that traditional dry powder and foam extinguishers remove the oxygen by smothering the flames, but they do nothing to the heat and the fuel source, she said, meaning the fire could reignite.

Monrad said that wetting agents such as Cold Fire that are mixed with water remove the heat by dousing the flames. They also remove the fuel source by encapsulating its hydrocarbons, but they leave the oxygen in place for victims and emergency personnel.

Before buying the Cold Fire extinguishers, Lenexa police officials tested them, Gardner said. They placed wooden pallets and a blade inside metal drums, doused them with gasoline and set them ablaze.

The fires they sprayed with their powder extinguishers reignited and took longer to put out. Then it took several minutes for the drums to cool.

Cold Fire doused the flames faster, and the officers could reach into the cooled drums and pull out the metal blades with their bare hands.

"This goes right to the heat source," Gardner said.

Copyright 2008 The Kansas City Star

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