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Who's training your officers on vehicle-fire response?

When it comes to vehicle fires, police officers often rely on instinct and improvisation, despite the fact that they're usually first on scene of a collision

Dash-cam video can be a tremendous teacher, and not always in the most obvious way.

Last week, we saw the tremendous heroism of Officer Zac McDowell of the Urbandale (Iowa) Police Department, who rescued a man named Ian Waseskuk from a burning car.

Check out the video — which shows McDowell opening the passenger door, reaching in, grabbing the unconscious 18-year-old victim and dragging him from the burning vehicle — then pick up the rest of this column below.

Doughnuts at Church

Instinct, Improvisation, and Intrepidness
We can all agree that Officer Zac McDowell is worthy of our praise, admiration, respect, and thanks. I think we can also agree that Waseskuk, who was driving in circles, doing ‘doughnuts’ in a church parking lot when he crashed into an air conditioning unit, can use this video as a learning experience.

What I’ve learned from this video — and numerous others like it, such as this one, this one, and this one — is that when it comes to vehicle fires, America’s intrepid police officers generally rely on instinct and improvisation.

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a brief column about dealing with a burning squad. Since then, I’ve had dozens of conversations with officers, trainers, and academy instructors on the subject of victim extraction from vehicles alight with fire.

I’ve been disappointed to discover that (so far) nobody has said car fires are part of their academy curriculum or in-service training (or anything else, for that matter).  I’m sure such training programs exist, but my sense is that  they’re not particularly common.

This seems to me to be a bit of a gap, since cops are usually first on scene of a traffic collision. 

Remembering the Rules of the Road
Last year, I referenced the excellent instruction of FireRescue1 Columnist Jason Poremba — a captain for a volunteer fire department in New York — and I’ll do so again now, because his firefighters is equally valid here. Paraphrasing him somewhat, Poremba cautions that we consider:

• 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 advises also to “assume every vehicle contains a BBQ tank and fertilizer,” and to approach cars carefully from angles, avoiding direct lines of fire “from tires, bumpers, and hatchbacks containing struts.”

These items, when in contact with continuous heat, have a history of failing. The exposure to heat will typically end up with some form of explosion that sends out a projectile toward approaching responders.

In addition, please remember one more thing: gravity. 

The video below offers a great lesson which seems almost too obvious to mention, but even fire professionals have to get a reminder on it now and again...

Cars have wheels, and wheels tend to roll downhill, so be sure to position yourself and your vehicle with this simple Newtonian principle in mind.

In closing, I want to invite anyone who has a formalized training program for police officer response to vehicle fires to send me an email so that we can share that information with PoliceOne Members.

Stay safe my friends.

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