Firefighters put out a vehicle fire in Massachusetts in 2004. (Photograph: AP/Wide World)
Vehicle Fire Problem
NFPA Report: In 2005, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of one highway vehicle fire every two minutes.
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2007
By John Nicholson
A fire in one's car or other motor vehicle is a frightening situation. In 2005, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of one highway vehicle fire every two minutes. More people died as a result of vehicle fires than apartment fires. As with home fires, the majority of vehicle fire deaths result from fires that kill only one or two people. However, there are some notable exceptions.
For example, in 1999, seven people died in a one-vehicle crash on a paved public road in California . When the firefighters arrived, they found the vehicle on its top and fully involved in flames. The area of origin was the fuel line or fuel tank area. The position of the vehicle impeded escape, although a male passenger managed to get out. One victim was found outside and six children were trapped inside.
More recently, 23 people died in a bus fire when a fire broke out in the rear right wheel well of the bus on a Texas interstate. According to NFPA’s U.S. Multiple-Death Fires for 2005, the bus carried 38 patients and 6 staff members being evacuated from a nursing home located in the predicted path of Hurricane Rita. Many of the patients were non-ambulatory. Oxygen was in use by patients on the bus and 18 oxygen cylinders were stored in the luggage area.
The National Transportation Safety Board held hearings on this fire in August, 2006. NFPA’s Manager of Fire Analysis Services, Marty Ahrens, testified on the scope of the bus fire problem and the sources we use to produce vehicle fire statistics. Her analysis, Vehicle Fires Involving Buses and School Buses, was submitted into the record. Ahrens is also the author of NFPA’s October, 2006, report, U.S. Vehicle Fire Trends and Patterns. This report covers the years 1980 to 2005 and provides detailed information on highway vehicle fires reported from 1999 through 2003.
Vehicle fires include fires outside of structures in which mobile property such as cars, trucks, boats, railroad cars, planes, and construction or garden vehicles burned. If a vehicle burns inside a structure but the fire does not spread to the structure, it is also counted as a vehicle fire. If the structure becomes involved, the incident is counted as a structure fire, not a vehicle fire. When conducting its annual fire department experience survey, NFPA contacts fire departments that report vehicle fire deaths to be sure that the death resulted from the fire itself, not from trauma. Highway vehicles include any vehicle designed to operate normally on highways, e.g., automobiles, motorcycles, buses, trucks, trailers (not mobile homes on foundations), etc., regardless of where the fire actually occurred (street, highway, parking lot, service station, etc.).
Based on data from the U.S. Fire Administration’s (USFA) National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and NFPA’s fire department survey, NFPA estimates that an average of 325,100 vehicle fires were reported to U.S. fire departments annually in the years 1999 through 2003. These fires caused an average of 440 civilian deaths, 1,500 civilian injuries, and $1.2 billion in direct property damage. Cars, trucks, and other highway vehicles accounted for 95 percent of the reported vehicle fires, 89 percent of the vehicle fire deaths, 83 percent of the associated injuries, and 83 percent of the property damage from vehicle fires during this time period.
Overall, the number of reported highway vehicle fires was 27 percent lower in 2003 than in 1980, while structure fires for the same period were down 51 percent.
The NFPA survey collects summary data about U.S. fire department activities. Although lacking the detail found in NFIRS, the survey provides more current estimates of the big picture. Based on the results of the survey, NFPA estimates that 259,000 reported highway vehicle fires caused an estimated $1 billion in direct property damage in 2005. These fires caused 500, or 14 percent, of the civilian fire deaths and 1,450, or 8 percent, of the civilian fire injuries.
Most highway vehicle fires result from either mechanical or electrical problems, while collisions or overturns were factors in only 3 percent. Collisions or overturns, however, caused 58 percent of the associated deaths.
According to the report, mechanical or electrical failures or malfunctions caused almost three-quarters of the highway vehicle fires, but 9 percent of the deaths. Collisions or overturns were factors contributing to the ignition in 3 percent of the fires, but fires resulting from these incidents caused 58 percent of these vehicle fire deaths. Sixty-five percent of the highway vehicle fires began in the engine, running gear, or wheel area.
Two percent of the highway vehicle fires started in the fuel tank or fuel line area, but these fires caused 17 percent of the associated deaths. Older teens and young adults are the age groups at highest risk of highway vehicle fire death and injuries. One-third of non-fatal highway vehicle fires injuries occurred when civilians attempted to fight the fire themselves.
There is, according to Ahrens, little data on vehicle fires spread. For example, it is unclear how often fire or smoke from a fire that begins outside the operator/passenger area spreads to that area. In addition, direct evidence on the performance of barriers, like the firewall between the engine compartment and the front seat, is lacking. This data is not collected by NFIRS.
Type of vehicles involved in fires
According to the report, 79 percent of the highway vehicles involved in fires were cars, taxis, limos, or ambulances. Another 4 percent were pick-ups or other small trucks. Two percent were general-use, dump, or fire trucks, and 2 percent were classified as semi trailers. One percent were motor homes, travel trailers, or campers, and 1 percent were buses or school buses. Less than 1 percent of the vehicles involved in accidents were tank trucks. NFIRS has no specific code to identify SUVs (sport utility vehicles) as a category. Lastly, 9 percent were unclassified passenger vehicles.
Strategies to reduce losses
The thrust of efforts to prevent fire and associated losses in the United States has primarily been in making structures (and their occupants and contents) less fire-prone and more fire safe. The fire community has given only intermittent attention to vehicle fires. What attention has been given has typically focused narrowly on major multiple-death incidents rather than the more typical fatal vehicle fires that kill one or two. Attempts to further reduce fires and their related losses necessitate strategies that reduce both the occurrence and the severity of vehicle fires. Improved maintenance could help reduce the fires caused by mechanical or electrical failures or malfunctions. Efforts to reduce collisions would likely reduce vehicle fires caused by collisions and the resulting deaths.
Additional and more in-depth fire testing of automobiles and other vehicles can increase our knowledge of how these fires develop. This detailed information can provide engineers with the information needed to develop solutions to the automobile fire death problem (similar to the advances, such as the airbag, that have resulted from collision testing). The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) sponsored its first program on fire safety at its 2005 World Congress in Detroitin April, 2005, and has included several sessions on fire safety each year since then.
Many government bodies, agencies, organizations, and individuals are working on vehicle fire safety
As with other fire problems, efforts to address the vehicle fire problem have included technology, standards and regulations, education, and enforcement. Larry Strawhorn’s chapter on “Motor Vehicles” in the 19th edition of NFPA’s Fire Protection Handbook provides information on the agencies, regulations, and standards that pertain to vehicle fires, details on vehicle systems and hazards, information on tank trucks, and a bibliography for further reading. The Motor Vehicle Fire Research Institute funds and compiles research on many different aspects of automobile fire safety. Final reports and descriptions of ongoing projects can be found at http://www.mvfri.org/.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulates highway vehicles and orders recalls
Passenger road vehicles are regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT sets minimum safety standards for new motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment and investigates reports of defects in motor vehicles, including fire hazards. Recalls are ordered when necessary. Information about safety problems, issues, and recalls can be found at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/problems/.
The NHTSA has issued four fire safety standards for new motor vehicles since it was created in 1966. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 301 was developed to reduce the danger from fuel leakage following crashes involving cars, trucks, and buses weighing no more than 10,000 pounds. Flammability standards for the materials used in the driver and passenger areas of vehicles were set forth in Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 302 to reduce the danger of interior fires caused by matches or smoking. The other two standards address vehicles using compressed natural gas.
NFPA 556 and beyond
In 2003, NFPA, through its Technical Committee on Hazard and Risk of Contents and Furnishings, began work on the development of a new document, NFPA 556, Guide for Identification and Development of Mitigation Strategies for Fire Hazard to Occupants of Passenger Road Vehicles. This activity is currently a work in progress.
This proposed guide will address methods for evaluating the hazard and risk from fire involving the furnishings contained in passenger or crew compartments of a road vehicle. The methods to be addressed by this guide include prevention of ignition, installation of fire barriers, control of ventilation factors, and limitation of the heat release rate of individual and grouped compartment furnishings. In July, 2006, the standards council upheld the vote of the membership that was held in Orlandoin June, 2006, to return NFPA 556 to the Committee for further development work and put this proposed document into the 2009 revision cycle.
Some of the other relevant NFPA codes and standards include NFPA 30A, Code for Motor Fuel Dispensing Facilities and Repair Garages; NFPA 385, Tank Vehicles for Flammable and Combustible Liquids; NFPA 1192, Recreational Vehicles.; and NFPA 502, Road Tunnels, Bridges, and Other Limited Access Highways.
Burned/Recovered Motor Vehicle Act reduced vehicle arson 95 percent in MassachusettsThe Commonwealth Massachusetts passed legislation to address the problem of vehicle arson motivated by insurance fraud. Effective August, 1987, the Burned/Recovered Motor Vehicle Act required owners of burned motor vehicles to appear personally and complete a report at fire headquarters in the community where the fire occurred before the insurance company could pay their claim for fire damages. According to annual reports of the Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System, vehicle arson in Massachusetts dropped 95 percent from 1987 to 2004, while reported vehicle fires fell 69 percent in the same period. In 1987, 41 percent of the Massachusetts vehicle fires were caused by arson. By 1990, 30 percent were incendiary or suspicious, and from 1995 to 2001, 14-17 percent of the vehicle fires were incendiary or suspicious. As with national data, a sharp decline in intentional fires was seen when Massachusetts began using NFIRS 5.0 in 2002 and the code for suspicious was dropped.
Different road and vehicle configurations and alternate fuels pose challenges to emergency personnel. Firefighters and other emergency personnel are often called to vehicle collisions with and without fire. The vast array of vehicle makes and models, the different fuel or power sources, and the different locations of batteries, airbags, and other equipment can make it difficult to conduct operations in ways that maximize the safety of vehicle occupants and the emergency personnel. NFPA’s Carl Rivkin P.E. has a chapter, “Alternative Fuels for Vehicles,” also in the 19th edition of NFPA’s Fire Protection Handbook, that provides an overview of some of the safety issues involved with these vehicles. Readers may also be interested in NFPA 52, Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) Vehicular Fuel Systems Code.
The NFPA Standards Council created a new Hydrogen Technology Technical Committee in November, 2005, which is responsible for producing a comprehensive hydrogen technologies safety code entitled NFPA 2, Hydrogen Technologies. The revision cycle for this new proposed document is pending at this time.
It is hoped that the information in this report will help individuals, industry, and regulatory bodies to devise new ways to lessen the vehicle fire problem, Ahrens says.
In this Section:
|Engineering a Future at NFPA
Christian Dubay brings a sense of tradition to his new Vice President, Codes and Standards and Chief Engineer position at NFPA.
|Liquefied Natural Gas
LNG safety and protecting a facility: Striving to be the safest in industry
|Vehicle Fire Problem
In 2005, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of one highway vehicles fire every two minutes.
|U.S. Standards Strategy: A Clear and Consistent Message
NFPA Board of Directors vote unanimously to endorse the United States Standards Strategy
|WSC&E Comes To Boston
More than 4,000 fire and life safety, electrical, and security professionals will convene in Boston for the 2007 NFPA World Safety Conference & Exposition®.