Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fires, and fighting them

I've had the misfortune to be caught in two building fires.  One was in a military barracks in South Africa, back in the 1970's.  Over a hundred of us had to make our way through smoke-filled corridors to the emergency exits at either end of the building, because the genius (genii?) who designed it had failed to specify windows with openings (or panes of glass) large enough for people to escape through them.  After it was all over, and we'd stopped hacking up our lungs from smoke inhalation, a lot of us expressed quite vehement opinions about that.

The second was in Louisiana in 2008, where a faulty shredder set fire to my home office while I was elsewhere in the house.  It left quite a mess behind it, but fortunately I noticed it before it could do major damage to my home.  Equally fortunately, my earlier experience in South Africa had taught me to have a couple of small fire extinguishers on hand.  I was able to use one of them to stop the flames from spreading too far before the fire department arrived.

That Louisiana fire demonstrated to me that consumer grade fire extinguishers (the kind you can buy at some supermarkets or hardware stores) are not necessarily a good idea (particularly the disposable variety that can't be refilled).  One of mine failed to function at all, despite its pressure gauge being "in the green" before, during and afterwards.  The other proved ineffectual against even a small fire, despite the claims of its manufacturer.  The best that can be said for it was that it helped to slow things down.  I lost confidence in consumer grade extinguishers after that experience.  (A recall of tens of millions of similar products, just a couple of weeks ago, demonstrates that things haven't improved much.)

I learned another important lesson from that second experience;  namely, that it was worth spending money on a high-quality product where my safety is concerned.  That applies even more now that I have Miss D.'s safety to consider, as well as my own.

I took the time and trouble to educate myself in the most likely types of fire I was likely to confront.  There are several very useful resources online:

There are also useful resources available in our communities:
  • The military often trains its members in fire-fighting and damage control.  I went through a week-long course on the subject during my service in South Africa, which taught me a lot, and I know the US armed forces provide similar instruction.
  • Manufacturers of fire detection and fire-fighting equipment often offer training in how to use their products.  This will mostly be for the benefit of fire-fighters, but it's sometimes open to interested members of the public as well.
  • I've heard of several "open days" held by local fire departments, where time-expired fire extinguishers have been donated by vendors and/or manufacturers for the public to try them out and learn how they work.  At least one was arranged with a local school, where seniors could get hands-on training in fighting small fires.  It was intended to encourage them to volunteer as fire-fighters, but had the added benefit of teaching them the basics of a useful skill.

As for fire-fighting equipment, I bought two or three small commercial-grade extinguishers after my Louisiana experience.  Miss D. and I each had one in our vehicles, and one was on standby in our garage.  However, they were all relatively small, light units, designed more to deal with electrical, or kitchen (i.e. grease or cooking oil), or garage fires than with a more common structural fire.  I wasn't happy with only that level of preparation, so I've recently taken steps to upgrade it, and replace our older units with newer, more capable extinguishers.  We now have six, distributed as follows:
  • Two 2½-gallon water extinguishers, one next to our fireplace (which is, let's face it, the most likely source of fire problems in our home), and the other in our bedroom, in case we need to fight our way through flames and sparks to our front door.  These are big, heavy units, that might not be suitable for a child to use, but we're adults, so that's not a major concern.  They're free-standing on the floor.
  • Two 2½-pound chemical extinguishers, one in our kitchen, one in our garage, mounted on the wall using the brackets supplied with them.  These are intended to deal with electrical and/or oil and grease fires.  They're filled with so-called "Purple-K", one of the most effective firefighting chemicals.  They offer only about 10 seconds use each, but they're professional-grade, and should be able to handle any small kitchen or garage fire that might arise.  If one isn't big enough to do the job, the other is only a few steps away.
  • Two 5-pound chemical extinguishers, also filled with Purple-K, for our vehicles (one in each).  These offer up to 20 seconds use, which should be enough to put out a small engine bay fire and/or stop it spreading to other parts of the vehicle.  Our car extinguishers are larger than our household chemical units, because they're more likely to be needed far from a fire department or another backup extinguisher, so their extra capacity might come in very useful.  (The vehicle extinguishers are currently carried in the trunk, but will soon be mounted either in hook-and-loop fastening straps, or on a vehicle fire extinguisher bracket.)

All six are commercial- or professional-grade extinguishers, refillable, and capable of being serviced if necessary.  I sleep better knowing that we have reliable, high-quality equipment on hand.  If we should be so unfortunate as to have a fire of any kind, they should help us contain the situation until the fire department can get here (fortunately for us, their building is only a few minutes away).

If you haven't thought about the risk of fires in your own home, and equipped yourself to fight them in the beginning stages, before they get out of hand, may I recommend that you do so?  Your local fire marshal will probably be more than happy to walk through your home with you, pointing out potential problem areas and suggesting ways to deal with the danger.  I submit that the expense of a fire extinguisher or two, or even just a couple of strategically placed buckets of water and/or sand, will repay itself several times over if you ever really need them.  I speak from experience.

It's not just flammable household items we need to worry about.  Those who service their own vehicles at home need to remember that oil and grease - not to mention gasoline - burn very readily and very hot;  and barbecue grills using propane as fuel have cylinders of gas that can explode in a fire.  Such materials should never be kept in your home, or in any structure attached to it such as a garage.  They should be stored in an outbuilding such as a garden shed, well away from the house.

In particular, those of us who enjoy the shooting sports need to think about how and where we store ammunition, reloading components, etc.  Ammunition that isn't chambered in a firearm doesn't explode in a fire - with nothing to confine the cartridge, it simply goes "pop" without sending the bullet any distance at all - but if we store it in airtight containers such as ammo cans, those can build up pressure inside until they let go with a very impressive bang.  Something to think about.  What's more, if we store large quantities of ammunition at home, firefighters hearing it "cook off" might withdraw from the structure and let it burn, rather than risk injury to themselves.  (That's not uncommon:  see, for example, here, here and here.)

The video below was produced to educate firefighters in what happens to ammunition in a fire.  It's worth watching.

There's a lot to think about in terms of fire safety. It's too late to do so after the flames have taken hold.



Anonymous said...

A good quality extinguisher of the largest practical size is in your vehicle is a must in my opinion. Standing helpless at a car accident watching and listening to someone screaming as they burn to death is something you'll never be able to forget. Putting out or even slowing down a car fire with a standard vehicle fire extinguisher is an exercise in futility. If you need some evidence or motivation and have a strong constitution go look up a few dashcam and cellphone videos of the above types of incidents on liveleak or other unfiltered internet video sites.

STxRynn said...

My dad was a policeman long years ago. I watched him wash his hands for days after trying to drag a man out of a burning truck. His 2.5 lb extinguisher didn't even dent the fire that burned that man down. I know he cussed those little "squirts". for years after that.

lpdbw said...

Please post a follow-up post on mounting the extinguishers in your car.
The bracket you linked to only handles smaller units.

I'd like to see pictures of the final mounted product.

I currently don't carry any extinguishers in my vehicle. I suppose I need to rethink this.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget to keep a box of baking soda on the mantle of the fireplace to smother a chimney fire. Also remember to have the chimney cleaned regularly.

Dennis the librarian shusher

Anonymous said...

I've seen a couple incidents where despite a substantial front end collision, the impact switch didn't trip and the electric fuel pump was happily sending copious volumes of gasoline spewing into the engine compartment and onto the ground. If you think the little DOT required extinguisher is gonna even make a dent in a serious vehicle fire you're sadly mistaken. Not that a bigger one will stop it but it can at least buy some time.

Aesop said...

All good points.
Also a good argument for home fire sprinklers whenever possible.

As for the car:
Skip the Velcro and get the vehicle bracket mount.
The only thing less funny than a vehicle fire is
a) trying to find the extinguisher after it flies loose of the Velcro hold-downs and the vehicle is on fire, or
b) dodging the 6 pound missile when an unsecured or poorly-secured 5# extinguisher starts bouncing around in a 60-70MPH collision or rollover.
(If you're curious, have someone drop one to you from a two- or three-story roof and try and catch it, if you like fractures. Or just drop it onto the roof or windshield from that height to get an idea of velocity damage.)

Crazy Al said...

Tips, Part One: 10 lb ABC extinguishers are a good size for home use - not too heavy for most people, including young teenage children, to pick up, enough capacity to be effective. The 2 3/4 lb extinguishers are cute but unless you have them by the dozen, they're too small. If you have family members who can't handle a 10 lb, get 5s, and more of them.

One wall-mounted extinguisher of 5 to 10 lb capacity in each closet is not too many. Never sit an extinguisher on the floor, of a closet or anywhere - stuff will get piled in front of it and arouind it - wall mount it.

A 2" - 3" band of reflective tape around an extinguisher - white or yellow - makes it easier to find if the lights are out, and reflective tape in hallways and on doors can be a valuable exit path guide ("go this way and follow the white squares"). Everyone in the house should have a good small flashlight, preferably a quality headlamp. Kids will play with them, so check them often and replace the bateries every 6 months whether they need new ones or not. Don't forget the guest room.

Dry chemical extinguishers usually have a 6-year certification, after which they need to be emptied, pressure-tested and refilled. All extinguishers should be inspected at least once a year, and more frequently is better. Lightly tap the gauge when inspecting; if the needle moves at all, take it to a fire extinguisher shop for refill and re-cert.

"Consumer" extinguishers should be avoided (see: Kidde extinguishers, massive recall). Commerical extinguishers are more expensive but alsomore reliable.

+1 on the suggestion to visit your local fire department to get training on how to use an extinguisher. Even if you have to pay to get training someplace, get trained so if you ever have to use an extinguisher you'll know what to do; I've seen people scream and drop an extinguisher in a real fire when they're surprised by the sudden discharge from squeezing the handle.

A pair of 5 lb extinguishers in your car is not too many. Commercial extinguishers usually have a vehicle bracket option that has a user-operated security clamp. Mount the extinguisher where it's easily reached but be aware in a crash it may become a 12-15 lb missle, so don't mount it where it will injure someone in a crash.

Your kitchen extinguisher should not be near the stove - put it several feet away, better yet, on the opposite wall. There is a K-Class extinguisher specifically designed for kitchen-type fires. They're expensive because they're designed for commercial kitchens, but perform best in kitchen fires. There's nothing wrong with having a K-Class on the wall next to a 5 lb ABC extinguisher. FYI, K-Class extinguishers are certified one year at a time, not 6 years like most dry chemical extinguishers.

Crazy Al said...

Tips, Part 2

If you're building/remodeling investigate installing a sprinkler system. New fire codes (in most areas, but not all) allow use of non-metallic piping for residential systems IF the piping is 1-hour fire protected (meaning "behind but not touching 5/8" or thicker fire code drywall"). Connecting to a municipal water system is best, if you're on a well look at a couple of 250 gallon pressure tanks; when a residential sprinkler activates, it's usually very early in the fire so 500 gallons is more than enough to put it out (usually, 250 is more than enough) and if 500 doesn't put it out, it'll at (hopefully) least contain it for long enough for the fire dept to arrive. 250-500 gallons limits the water damage; sprinkler systems connected to municipal water supplies can have a volume-limiting valve to shut the system down after 500 gallons. FYI, all residential sprinker systems should be connected to an alarm system to alert a monitoring station that the sprinkler system got triggered (Won't connect to a sprinkler system, but Simplisafe makes inexpensive alarm systems for homeowner/renter self-install, and has smoke and CO detectors, even if you don't want perimeter intrusion protection; monitoring with them is cheap, and the system is completely portable if you move).

Garages and attics need heat sensors as part of the alarm system - exhaust fumes will trigger smoke detectors.

While you're installing extinguishers, don't forget a family fire plan which means evacuation, potentially through non-usual exits. Small children will tend to hide in a fire, going to someplace they feel safe (closet, under a bed, etc.). The evac plan needs to include a rendezvous location - end of the driveway, the mailbox, streetlight pole, etc. so parents can count heads. Practice the plan, rehearse the plan.

Any family members who have mobility issues? Develop part of your evac plan to deal with it. In commercial buildings there are (an inadequate number) of special handicap evac wheelcairs with rubber tracks and brakes for descending stairs. You probably don't need one for Grandma in the house, but you do need to plan for some way of getting her out, and she should not be the first one in line in an evac holding the rest of the family up. One solution is a heavy canvas or heavy duck tarp about 8 ft X 3 ft with reinforced hand holds sewn into one end and retention straps - Grandma lies on it, gets strapped in and you drag the tarp outside through a doorway. She'll get some bruises, but they'll heal.

If you have animals, they'll hide, too, especially cats. Animals are not as important as people, so people come first, and don't ever go back in to look for Fluffy. Worst case, toss them out a ground floor window and hope someone finds them and returns them. They all have collars and tags, right?

Crazy Al said...

Tips Part 3

Shoes are a necessary part of evac - exiting through a window frequently means broken glass. You know that "get home bag" or "bug out bag" you keep in the car or truck? Add some blankets to it. Find someplace outside where you can hide, but still have accessible, a locking box with a car key in it so you can get to the bags.

A small "evac bag" isn't a bad idea - one set of season-appropriate clothes for each family member, copies of important documents, one set of keys, an old cell phone (cell phones without a service plan will still call 911). If you have pets, include a leash(s). Don't bury the evac bag in a closet, keep it where one of the adults can grab it instantly.

If you live in an apartment, especially on an upper floor, you should have means of evac other than the regular stairs (in a fire the elevators will - or should - automatically go to the first floor and stay there, but never use an elevator for fire evac even if they're available and operational; mountain climbing rope, a climbing harness and rope brake isn't being paranoid, but consult with a professional for what to get and how to use it. Pro tip: make sure the rope is at least 20-30 feet longer than the distance to the ground. 2nd Pro tip: is you evac via rope, make sure the top end is well secured to something solid and willstay secured to something solid. Beds, furniture, door knobs and water pipes in modern construction are not "solid" so do some research and planning.

Emergency evac hoods - clear plastic with a 3-4 minute air supply - are available. Not cheap, but if you need a couple minutes to evac from the 20th floor through smoke, they're an option.

Anonymous said...

Another use for the refillable, pressurized water extinguishers: Put a small amount of dish soap in the water and it makes a great long distance wasp eradicator for those wasp nests high in the eaves of the house!

Leonard Jones said...

The video was interesting, but I have known for decades that
ammunition cooking off in a fire is not all that dangerous.
With typical metallic cartridges, the physics is simple:
The case has less mass than the bullet, so in an uncontained
detonation, the case flies but at a greatly reduced velocity.

It does not take a lot of force to propel the case, so when
separation occurs, any unburnt powder will add almost nothing
to the velocity. Even nitrate based gunpowder is not an
explosive. What causes explosions is containment, as in
a pipe bomb. True high explosives are a different story
but gunpowder simply burns.

Don in Oregon said...

The great thing about 2-1/2 lb water cans is they're refillable so you can practice with them. Hold your thumb over the nozzle to control the spray pattern and use short bursts. They're handy to have around campfires and bonfires too. Or water fights for that matter.

PS Thanks Crazy Al, great posts.

Anonymous said...

Another vote for adding dish washing detergent (Dawn, Joy, etc) to the pressurized water extinguishers. About 1/2 cup added will significant increase the firefighting capability on Class A combustibles, which is the intended use for water cans.

It will effectively turn it into "wet water" by surfactant action, that increase water's spreading and penetrating properties due to a reduction in surface tension.

joemedic said...

+1 on learning from your local FD on how to put out a fire. You can put out a surprising amount of fire with a 2-1/2 gallon water can if you know what to do and how to do it.

Every door in our house is shut at night including the bedroom in which we are sleeping. I cannot tell you the devastation caused by a dryer fire I helped fight which could have been stopped if they had simply shut the door to the laundry room--the entire house had to be ripped out to the studs and completely rebuilt. This annoys my wife to no end but I've fought an odd half-dozen fires caused by dryers over the years and she's never had to crawl through a burning building so I'm not changing my thoughts on the matter.

My volunteer fire department is very good. We respond promptly and professionally. But it still isn't enough time to arrive at a car fire before it's too late. Buy the biggest fire extinguisher you can stuff into your trunk as you may need it. I've been on dozens of car fires over the years where all we could save was the rear license plate and not much else.

+1 on buying commercial grade fire extinguishers. More expensive, but how much is your life, that of your family, pets and your house worth? Don't find yourself standing before St. Peter explaining on how you scrimped on a fire extinguisher at the cost of your life.

Your local FD may give you a little bit of foam to add to your water can if you ask nicely. Works exceptionally well to help fight fires and we have it in all of our FD water cans. (Doesn't work so well in helping wash pepper mace off of someone which is a rather funny story for another time.)

MattB said...

Brass or aluminum cartridge cases do not cause problems when set off by a fire. However steel cased 7.62x39 cartridges will fire off the bullet with enough velocity to go through a 50 cal ammo box. How do I know this? When my house burned down in 2014 my ammo box of 7.62x39 perforated the ammo box it was stored in. At least 70 bullet holes in it!! Pictures available.

Will said...

Aesop's cautions about loose items in vehicle crashes is important. I worked lots of crashes as a patrolling emergency tow truck. NOTHING stays in place if it isn't strongly contained/restrained. Loose items may end up at the other end of the interior, or many yards outside, depending on variables such as what the vehicle impacted and speed. (If your spare tire mounts inside the vehicle structure, make damn sure you have bolted it back down. On more than one occasion, I've found it had smashed through the front or rear glass and flown across the road, along with lots of other belongings. If your head is in the way, kiss it goodbye.)

I would expect that industrial type Velcro straps, that wrap completely around the cylinder more than once, would suffice. The potential problem for some of the metal strap/latch types is that it doesn't take much to unlatch them, and then you have a loose item. You may not notice this, and if it happens during a crash sequence, the secondary bumps may launch the cylinder. Even if it doesn't hit someone, you may not find it if you need it for a fire.

I was normally the first emergency vehicle on site, and still was not early enough to bother attempting to extinguish car fires. ( Once, in my teens, I was early enough to put out a fire inside a newspaper delivery truck.)

As one person noted, if the fuel pump is still running, you won't be putting that fire out. You have to turn off the ignition switch, which normally will de-power the pump. In some cases, it is actually an electrical fire, and this may require disconnection of the battery. This may require a wrench or cable cutters. Do you know where your battery is located? (Some are under the rear seat, or in the trunk)
BTW, stay out of the smoke from a vehicle fire, it is quite toxic.

clark myers said...

Time was the dry powder fire extinguishers typically mounted gauge up in a car would vibrate the powder into a solidly packed mass and so fail at need. Race cars with roll cage mounted extinguishers it paid to realign the extinguisher frequently. Under the hood mounted extinguishers would be hard to access. Having an extinguisher handy is nice but having the only extinguisher close to a fire source in a confined space is limiting. Many dry powder fire extinguishers are corrosive or hygroscopic. A CO2 extinguisher is typically weak but safe for most fires and no mess so handy especially around a garage or shop.

Aesop said...

BTW, fire extinguishers get mounted next to room exits, not in closets.

You don't want the extinguisher deeper in a room, and then be standing there, with a discharged extinguisher that spread the fire instead of extinguished it, with the fire between you and the way out, and with a silly look on your face.

If necessary, build a mount box into a wall, between studs, for esthetic reasons, but put it by the door.

Ask the pros: the first thing you want when you get to a room afire, is a way to back out of it.
Everything else, including fighting that fire, is a secondary consideration.
Nota bene dead civilian firefighters don't even get medals.
Just burial urns.