In the December 2018 edition of The Jere Beasley Report, there is an important article dealing with vehicle fires. Of course, the best defense is a good offense, so first and foremost are tips for preventing fires. But in the worst-case scenario, being prepared for what to do in the event of a vehicle fire could be the difference between life and death. We hope these recommendations will help keep folks safe.

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 wiring. Do not leave them hanging.
  • Include a check of the fuel system in your regular maintenance schedule. Electrical and fuel system 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 odors, something has gone wrong. Remember, 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 measures to follow when your vehicle is smoking or 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 you 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

Firefighters realize 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 seat belt buckles and brackets. The 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.

Read the full article in the December issue of the Report. You can download the publication on our website.

Jere L. Beasley, Beasley Allen Founder
Jere Beasley

Jere Beasley, the founding member of Beasley Allen Law Firm, has practiced law as an advocate for victims of wrongdoing since 1962. He was the lead Beasley Allen attorney in the record $11.9 billion award against ExxonMobil Corp. on behalf of the state of Alabama.

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