The Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations, commonly known as the Red Book, “states, references, or supplements policy for Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service fire and fire aviation program management”. The January, 2011 edition has a very significant change in Chapter 11, Incident Management and Response. It appears to prohibit wildland firefighters from taking direct action on vehicle fires. Here is a quote from page 21 in Chapter 11:
Structure, Vehicle, Dumpster, Trash, and Landfill Fires
Firefighters will not take direct suppression action on structure, vehicle, dumpster, trash, or landfill fires. Structure, vehicle, and landfill fire suppression is not a functional responsibility of wildland fire resources. These fires have the potential to emit high levels of toxic gases. This policy will be reflected in suppression response plans.
Firefighters who encounter structure, vehicle, or landfill fires during normal wildland fire suppression duties, or who are dispatched to such fires due to significant threat to adjacent agency protected lands/resources, will not engage in direct suppression action. Structure protection (not suppression) activities will be limited to exterior efforts, and only when such actions can be accomplished safely and in accordance with established wildland fire operations standards.
• NPS– For structural fire (including vehicle, trash and dumpster fires) response, training, medical examination, and physical fitness requirements, and hazardous material response or control guidance, refer to chapter 3.
For the National Park Service, the referenced wording in Chapter 3, page 12, is a little confusing, perhaps intentionally, but my interpretation is that NPS firefighters can STILL suppress vehicle and structure fires if they have been “provided with the required personnel protective equipment, firefighting equipment and training”.
We were not able to find language prohibiting suppression of vehicle fires in the 2010 edition of the Red Book.
When I worked for the U.S. Forest Service I responded to and suppressed dozens of vehicle fires, usually as the first engine in. We regularly trained for this and the engine was well-equipped to suppress vehicle fires. We attacked the fires with foam through two, 1.5-inch lines attached to a 500-gallon engine with a high-capacity pump. However at that time we were not supplied with breathing apparatus (which we now know to be absolutely necessary) and we wore our Nomex brush coats over our Nomex shirts and pants for these types of fires.
Today many federal wildland engine crews, especially in the far west, are properly trained, equipped, and have the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), including breathing apparatus, to safely suppress vehicle fires. No firefighters should take direct action on a vehicle fire unless they have the appropriate training, firefighting equipment, and PPE.
It is absurd to prohibit a properly trained and equipped Federal engine crew from putting out a vehicle fire. Under the new policy, they are still allowed to respond in order to protect the adjacent property, but if they are the first in and the fire is confined to the vehicle, they are required to just sit there and watch the vehicle burn, while their water tank remains full.
That is irrational.
With additional budget cuts every year, there are fewer and fewer federal, state, and local firefighters. The general public is not going to understand why on-scene, full-time professional firefighters are not allowed to put out a fire in a burning vehicle. They don’t see the nuances that the writers of the Red Book saw of jurisdiction, mandates, or responsibility. This is illustrated in the video we posted earlier about the “Role of the fire SUV”. They simply expect firefighters to put water on a fire.
A family is driving up Interstate 8 east of San Diego and and they have a small fire in the engine compartment of their Ford Taurus. U.S. Forest Service Engine 41, just a couple of miles away at Descanso Station, responds, because the fire is a threat to the nearby National Forest vegetation, and gets there within five minutes. The fire is still small and confined to the engine compartment. The family “knows”, because they’ve seen it hundreds of times in movies, that the car will explode any second in a huge fireball, so they are far away from the vehicle, leaving all of their vacation gear in the car.
Engine 41 arrives and the crew pulls hoses, charges the lines, and staffs the nozzles. The fire is still confined to the car’s engine compartment, and could be put out with a 2.5-pound fire extinguisher, but the firefighters follow procedure, just standing there holding charged lines, watching the fire slowly spread to totally involve the entire car. The family yells at the professional firefighters holding the nozzles, “Why don’t you put out the fire!?” As the fires burns, the family tries to explain to the engine captain that they pay taxes which help support the USFS and their engine.
The Ford Taurus does not explode, and the Descanso Volunteer Fire Department arrives and mops up the smoldering remains of the family’s car and vacation gear. USFS Engine 41, having successfully protected the nearby vegetation without pumping any water except to fill the hoses, drives away to their station with their water tank full. The family is still yelling profanely at them and the U.S. Forest Service, while they compose in their heads letters to their Senators and Congressman.
UPDATE @ 4:43 p.m. MT, February 12:
AZ Firefighter correctly points out in a comment below that similar language existed in the 2009 edition of the Red Book, Chapter 9, page 10. I looked again and I still can’t find it in the 2010 version. It’s odd that it would be deleted and then included again a year later. Or am I just missing it in the 2010 Red Book?
Regardless of what versions it was or was not in, the latest edition, 2011, does include the prohibition of direct suppression of vehicle fires — an irrational policy.
UPDATE @ 9:20 a.m. MT, February 14
Is it possible that the people in the U.S. Forest Service and the other agencies that made this policy decision have never responded to or suppressed a vehicle fire? Some of the fire policy-makers in the federal land management agencies have backgrounds of forestry or range conservation, not firefighting.
Perhaps their vision of vehicle fires was formed by movies. Of the car crashes I have seen in movies, about 90 percent of them result in the vehicles catching fire, and about 90 percent of those explode in a huge fireball, like the family driving the Ford Taurus expected.
From my real world experience, few vehicle crashes cause the vehicles to catch fire, and I have never seen a movie-like explosion of a burning vehicle. Sure, there are many hazards associated with a vehicle fire, such as shock-absorbing bumpers, air bags, toxic fumes, and others. And various individual parts may pop as they burn. But you have to wonder if television and movies influenced the decision made by the foresters and range conservationists, trying to protect their firefighters from a movie-worthy explosion.