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Fire Extinguisher Use and Safety for Utility Workers

Officer George Brentar, a 22-year veteran of the Euclid, Ohio, police force, died October 10, 2007, when his car skidded into a pole and caught fire on an entrance ramp to Interstate 90. Officer Brentar had spotted a speeding motorist and was attempting to catch up to the vehicle when his car hydroplaned. The right rear end hit a pole and the car immediately burst into flames, with Officer Brentar trapped inside.

If your job has you on the road much of the time, as it sometimes does in the utility industry, there always exists the possibility that you may come upon such a horrific accident. And if you are like me, you hope to be well-prepared and properly equipped to help ensure a more favorable outcome. A trained person with a fire extinguisher and seat-belt cutter could have made a difference in Officer Brentar’s life that day.

For those of you who are over-the-road drivers for your company, you likely have what is known as a dry chemical/multipurpose/ABC fire extinguisher on your vehicle. If you don’t, you should; see Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulation 393.95(a) regarding extinguisher requirements for commercial motor vehicles. The “ABC” stands for the three different classifications of fire:

  • A: ordinary combustibles, such as paper products and wood.
  • B: liquid fires, such as gasoline or diesel fuel.
  • C: charged electrical fires; if you take away the power, this type of fire can become a Class A or B fire.

Class D fires – which involve combustible metals – also exist. These fires burn very hot and need their own type of extinguishing agent. Magnesium wheels can fall into this category, but unless you are hauling such a material, you probably won’t encounter a Class D fire.

It is worth noting here that a carbon dioxide unit is another type of extinguisher you may come across. These extinguishers are not as common and are rated for both Class B and C fires. They are essentially dry ice, very heavy and make a lot of noise when discharged. Their reach typically is shorter than that of a dry chemical extinguisher, and the nozzle is much wider – it looks somewhat like a cowbell. This type of extinguisher works by displacing oxygen and smothering the fire.

Fire Extinguisher Storage and Use
Of course, having a fire extinguisher onboard your vehicle isn’t terribly helpful if you don’t know how to use it. Here are some tips on dry chemical fire extinguisher storage and use so that you can make the most of it.

First, make certain the fire extinguisher is mounted in an easily accessible spot on your vehicle where you can see the gauge at least monthly. That is how often you should check to make sure pressure in the unit is adequate. The gauge should be in the green area. In addition, the unit should be serviced at least annually by a licensed company to ensure it’s always ready for use.

When attempting to operate the dry chemical extinguisher, use the acronym PASS to recall the proper procedure:

  • Pull the pin.
  • Aim the nozzle.
  • Squeeze the valve.
  • Sweep at the front base of the fire.

Pull the Pin
Look at the top of the unit. There should be a ring/pin held in place by a small nylon tie. This pin prohibits the valve from being depressed until you need it. Some people find it easier to set the extinguisher on the ground to provide more leverage while pulling the pin. The nylon tie should break away.

Aim the Nozzle
Aim for the flame front lowest and closest to you. Before you approach the fire, quickly depress and release the valve, for two reasons: one, to make sure the unit is operable, and two, to check what type of reach you can expect.

Squeeze the Valve
When approaching the fire, do so with your dominant hand holding the weighty portion of the unit and your nondominant hand outstretched from your side, holding the nozzle (e.g., I am right-handed, so I hold the unit and squeeze the valve with my right hand and point the nozzle with my left). Approach the fire somewhat sideways, for two reasons: one, it exposes less of you to any heat, and two, you can run away from the fire quickly if something goes wrong, without having to turn around.

Keep in mind that when you squeeze the valve, you puncture an internal canister of inert gas. This charges the rest of the vessel, thereby expelling the extinguishing agent. Once the canister is punctured, the pressure will bleed off. The fire extinguisher will need service after any use. If you do not get it serviced, it will not be ready the next time you need it. 

Sweep the Base of the Fire
When you first hit a fire with the extinguishing agent, it may flare up just slightly – this is not abnormal, especially if you’re dealing with a liquid fire. Don’t give up, keep on it. Shuffle your feet if you’re moving up on the flames. When the powder from the extinguisher mixes with the flames, it is disrupting what is known as the uninhibited chain reaction of the fire.

Before you sweep the base, however, you will need to determine if the fire is small enough to handle. A fire the size of a large wheelbarrow or so ought to be your cutoff point. If it’s much larger, you might not have enough extinguishing agent. A tire or partial engine fire is generally OK to approach. Then you’ll need to assess whether you can safely attempt to put out the fire. Be sure to check the area for other hazards, including electrical hazards, traffic hazards, and explosion potential from exposed fuel and vessels.

Extinguishers vary in size, and the length of time your extinguisher lasts will be crucial. The squeeze valve provides the ability to start and stop the stream. If you leave it in the fully open position, you’ll have roughly 20 seconds of fight time based on my experience. You’ll also raise quite a cloud of dust in the process. If you are by yourself and determine that you have not made a difference with one extinguisher, you need to consider moving away from the situation.

Extinguisher Training
If your company vehicles are equipped with portable fire extinguishers, your employer is required to provide training to employees on their proper use per OSHA 29 CFR 1910.157(g)(1), which states, “Where the employer has provided portable fire extinguishers for employee use in the workplace, the employer shall also provide an educational program to familiarize employees with the general principles of fire extinguisher use and the hazards involved with incipient stage fire fighting.” Local fire departments often are called upon to assist with this type of training.

Other Helpful Hints
In addition to the information above, following are some other tips that I have picked up over the course of my career. I hope you will find them helpful if you ever encounter a fire on the road, or if a fire breaks out on a vehicle you’re driving or riding in.

  • If there is a fire in either a semi-tractor or trailer, consider separating the units. This may be addressed in your company’s policies, and if so, follow that policy. Separating the units should only be attempted if it can be done safely. An extreme example of why this may be beneficial is a small fire in a tractor attached to a flammable tanker truck.
  • If you notice a fire on your vehicle and it’s possible to do so, do not stop under power lines or on top of or under bridges. As I am writing this article, the main I-75/I-71 bridge over the Ohio River between Kentucky and Ohio is still closed due to a fiery two-semi accident.
  • One of the last vehicle fires my crew handled before I retired was three cars on fire in a parking lot in the middle of the night. As we began battling the blaze, a huge shot rang out. After watching the video from my body cam, and through investigation the next day, we determined that a charged airbag cylinder in one vehicle’s window frame had over-pressurized and exploded. Be aware of hazards posed by those pressurized cylinders.
  • Many of the synthetic materials used on or in vehicles will throw off smoke that likely contains hydrogen cyanide. It’s critical not to breathe that in and to have an escape route from the fire that does not lead into traffic or off a bridge.
  • Always wear bright clothing or have a reflective vest nearby that you can quickly throw on in case you come upon a fire emergency. Although other drivers are supposed to give you a safety lane, they don’t always do so. Many secondary tragedies have occurred from inattentive, speeding drivers. When assisting during a fire, keep your eyes open toward oncoming traffic; make sure first responders have been contacted; and use emergency flashers, safety flares, reflectors or LED beacons as prescribed.
  • If your situation is untenable – meaning that you are not making the situation better at an accident scene or fire – strongly consider moving yourself (and possibly others) to a safety zone on the other side of a guardrail. Doing so could save you from bodily harm.
  • Have a seat-belt cutter within reach of your driving position. In the aftermath of rollover accidents, I have seen occupants trapped, unable to reach their seat-belt release button.
  • Be mindful if your vehicle is stopped on a slope. Running fuel fires may result, and you want to be ready for this. Don’t place valuables in this pathway, and consider blocking sewer inlets with unopened bags of Oil-Dri.

Conclusion
Fighting a fire – even a small one – is not for everyone. But if you know that you would want to try to make a difference in a situation like the one I referenced at the beginning of this article, make the effort now to be prepared. The small amount of time you spend doing so will pale in comparison to a potential lifetime of regret.

About the Author: Steve Nash entered the fire/emergency medical services industry at the age of 16. He belonged to several departments over the years, holding many ranks while becoming a paramedic and hazardous materials technician. Nash earned a bachelor’s degree in fire and safety engineering technology from the University of Cincinnati while working on several safety patents for firefighters. He retired from firefighting and EMS operations in late 2019 as a battalion chief and currently serves as a peer supporter with the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters. Nash continues to develop products through his company, Halcyon Products Inc., and can be reached at [email protected].

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