Escape and Safety from Vehicle Fire

Escape and Safety from Vehicle FireIntroduction and Overview

Tens of thousands of lives have been lost globally in the last few decades due to car entrapment deaths. In this section we will analyze the threat of vehicle fires and provide advice on how to act in these emergencies.

Data from the United States reveals the importance of awareness about this threat to safety on the road:

  • More people die in vehicle fires than in apartment fires each year in the United States where nearly 1 out of 5 fires involve motor vehicles.
  • U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 278,000 vehicle fires in the United States during 2006. These fires caused an estimated 490 civilian deaths and 1,200 civilian injuries.
  • Of those fires, 75 percent were caused by bad maintenance, mechanical or electrical failures or malfunctions. Collisions or overturns caused only 3% of these fires but 57% of the associated deaths.
  • Older teens and young adults are age groups at highest risk of highway vehicle fire death.
  • One-third of non-fatal vehicle fire injuries occurred when civilians attempted to fight the fire themselves.

Nature of the threat:

While explosions from car fires are rare, the true danger is the toxic fumes. Motor vehicles are made of many synthetic materials that emit harmful and deadly gases when they burn. A main by-product of fires is a lethal concentration of carbon monoxide, which is odourless, colourless and tasteless gas.

Fire can cause fatal or depilating burn injuries. A vehicle fire can generate heat upwards of 1,500 F. Flames in vehicles can often shoot out distances of 10 feet or more. Parts of the vehicle can burst because of heat, shooting debris great distances.  Bumper and hatchback door unit, two-piece tire rims, magnesium wheels, drive shafts, grease seals, axle, and engine parts, all can become lethal shrapnel. Fires may also cause air bags to deploy.

Hazardous materials such as battery acid can cause injury even without burning.

Cause of Vehicle Fires

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in the US reports that about one fifth of all fires reported are motor vehicle fires, and the majority of vehicle fires are not related to crashes. These fires do not seem to attract much attention or investigation, because they do not usually result in injury or property claims beyond the vehicle replacement cost.

Vehicle fires usually progress slowly in the early stages, allowing occupants time to escape injury. Injury or fatalities usually occur in cases where an occupant is asleep, disabled, intoxicated, or too young to escape.

Most vehicle fires start in the engine compartment. A motor vehicle contains many flammable materials, including flammable liquids like gasoline and oil as well as solid combustibles such as upholstery. Fuel leaks from ruptured fuel lines also can rapidly ignite.

Leakage of fuel, motor oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid, or even coolant can lead to engine fires, and the leakage of a flammable or combustible liquid in an engine compartment results from some kind of failure. The failure may be a result of normal wear and tear, failure of a mechanic to make repairs safely, design failure which leads to rupture or abrasion of hoses or manufacturing defects in hoses, gaskets or fluid connections.

When a brand new vehicle (or one which has had very recent repairs) burns, failure of the manufacturer (or a mechanic) to safely tighten all fluid connections is the most likely cause.

Car batteries pose a fairly unique hazard - hydrogen gas evolved in the electrolysis reaction ignites readily in fire conditions and can result in an explosive dispersion of battery acid.

About 15 percent of motor vehicle fires originate in the passenger compartment. The main causes of these are electrical short circuits and cigarettes.

Preventing Vehicle Fires

Vehicle maintenance and inspection is crucial to preventing vehicle fires. The following suggestion might prevent vehicle fires:

  • Have your vehicles inspected at least annually by a trained, professional technician.
  • Check for any malfunctioning parts and hanging electrical wirings. Do not leave them hanging. 
  • Include a check of the fuel system in your regular maintenance schedule. Electrical and fuel system or problems are the major causes of car fires.
  • Watch for fluid leaks under vehicles, cracked or blistered hoses, or wiring that is loose, has exposed metal or has cracked insulation. 
  • Have vehicles inspected and repaired as soon as possible if exhaust or emission control problems are suspected.
  • An early indication of a problem is a fuse that blows more than once. The source of the triggered fuse could be either a faulty component or a wiring problem. 
  • Check for oil leaks and always use a funnel when adding oil. Oil spilled on a hot exhaust manifold can cause a fire.
  • If a filling station attendant adds oil, double check that the cap is on securely. This sounds obvious, but better to check than end up with oil all over your engine compartment at best, or an engine fire at worst.
  • Clean the vehicle regularly - Do not allow your trash to settle in the vehicle.
  • Avoid throwing cigarette butts anywhere
  • When driving - Be alert to changes in the way your vehicle sounds when running, or to a visible plume of exhaust coming from the tailpipe. A louder than usual exhaust tone, smoke coming from the tailpipe or a backfiring exhaust could mean problems or damage to the high-temperature exhaust and emission control system on the vehicle. 
  • Observe your gauge frequently - Check if the temperature is rising.

Advice when Vehicle is on Fire

In the automotive world, smoke does not necessarily mean fire. Depending on the age of the vehicle, it could be steam from the radiator, often caused by a broken fan belt or over-heated engine. The simple fact is if your vehicle is smoking or putting off odours, something's gone wrong. A burning car is a death trap. Smoke accumulates quickly within the sealed doors and windows and rising heat and the fire itself make a time bomb out of the gas tank. Escape from a burning car is a challenge that requires fast thinking and even faster acting.

Here are safety suggestions to follow when your vehicle is smoking/ on fire:

  • Stay as calm as you can. The worst possible thing that you can do is panic. Panic will cause you to waste precious seconds and make mistakes that could end up being tragic. 
  • If the vehicle is moving, signal and move to the side of the road. 
  • Fire feeds off oxygen and even slow forward motion will force air into the engine compartment, basically stoking the fire.
  • Pulling to the side makes it possible for everyone to get out of the vehicle safely. 
  • Turn off the ignition to shut off the electric current and stop the flow of gasoline. 
  • Put the vehicle in park or set the emergency brake; you don't want the vehicle to move after your leave it. 
  • Make sure everyone gets out of the vehicle, but do not waste time and increase your risk by removing personal belongings. 
  • Move at least 100 feet away. Keep traffic in mind and keep everyone together. There is not only danger from the fire, but also from other vehicles moving in the area. 
  • Keep onlookers and others away.
  • Do not go back into a burning vehicle
  • Warn oncoming traffic. 
  • Notify emergency services from a safe distance
  • Do not open the hood or trunk if you suspect a fire under it. Air could rush in, enlarging the fire leading to injury. 
  • Be cautious of attempting to put out the fire yourself –There is a risk of explosion and toxic fumes emanating from vehicles fires. Inhalation of toxic fumes is the most common form of fire-related death.
  • One thing is certain - An emergency is not the time to start reading the instructions on your fire extinguisher. Everyone should have a fire extinguisher easily accessible in the passenger compartment.
  • If the fire is relatively small and in the interior, use your extinguisher. If there's a small amount of smoke coming from under the hood, pop the release but don't lift the hood. Quickly spray through the gap, from several feet away, aiming at the base of the fire rather than the flames. The logic is based on the fact that fire feeds off oxygen and lifting the hood can turn a little fire into a large one, instantly. If the fire is large or located in the rear of the vehicle, near the gas tank, your chances of safely extinguishing it are small.

If in an accident and not possible to get out immediately:

  • Unlock the doors and windows. Do whatever you can to accomplish this critical step. 
  • Even if you cannot open the door yourself, unlocking the doors will give bystanders or rescuers a good shot of getting you out of the burning vehicle quickly.
  • Get your seat belt off. This must be done quickly so the heat of the fire does not fuse the metal of the buckle to its anchor. 
  • If the metal is too hot to touch, use a piece of cloth to cover your hand so that you can release the buckle. 
  • If the buckle won't release, push the shoulder strap over your head and try lifting your legs out from underneath the waist strap.
  • Kick out a window. If you cannot get the door open, the next best thing is to kick out a window. Getting a window open will allow smoke to exit the car and will also give you an escape route. 
  • Use both feet against a side window, if possible, to shatter and then pop the window out of the frame.

Tools for Escaping from a Vehicle on Fire

Fire Fighters realise that in any life or death situation a person's chance for survival is greatest if they are able to successfully conduct a self-rescue. Getting trapped inside the car is a serious situation and could further lead to graver results.

It is often difficult after an accident to escape when a vehicle's doors are jammed or when a vehicle's rear doors are locked via the child safety locks. Car crashes often jam seatbelt buckles & brackets. Fact is that the bracket does not even have to jam to prevent you from safe escape.  If the vehicle is upside down, your own weight could prevent you from releasing the connection.

To prevent injuries and fatalities, road authorities recommend that vehicle owners should be equipped with auto escape tools. These simple tools could save lives, protect in case of emergencies and give peace of mind for travellers.

It is extremely difficult to break a car window with anything except a tool that is specially made to do the job. When you're trapped in your car…and it's on fire…and smoke is pouring in…you only have seconds to escape.

These tools include:

  • LifeHammer(R) "The Original Escape Tool". The LifeHammer(R) delivers a fast and efficient escape from an upturned, submerged, or immobilized vehicle. Its accurate steel points cut windows with one strike. The razor-sharp blade slashes easily through jammed seatbelts. The auto escape tool is compact, easy to install, and always conspicuous on the dashboard or console because of its luminescent pin.
  • ResQMe(TM), the keychain tool to cut through a seat belt like a hot knife through butter. The tool is a revolutionary hand-held rescue device that is equally powerful as its predecessors despite being tiny. A powerful center-punch cuts side windows and slices through a jammed seatbelt to avoid auto entrapment. ResQMe could be attached to a keychain so that car occupants are always prepared for the unexpected. 
  • The Escape Tip™ can greatly increase your safety when utilized in the appropriate situation. This is a tiny “tip”, positioned on the forward edge of a seatbelt latch plate and can be used as a glass breaking device for the purpose of exiting a vehicle in an emergency.

Also view:

Escape from a vehicle submerged under water

Driving near Veld/ Forest Fires

How to handle an emergency

Emergency Response Time

Vehicle Maintenance and Road Safety

Safety from Fire at our Homes

Safety, Prevention and Treatment from Burns

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