Avoiding vehicular fires: Your responsibility (MONDAY, AUGUST, 20, 2013) Pg 20

The weather was hot, the traffic horrible—there was no space to move. Impatient passengers in commercial vehicles filed out of the vehicles convinced that it was faster to walk. 

Then the screaming came.  Hawkers bobbling through the traffic to earn their living abandoned their trade to catch a glimpse.

Frustrated drivers and passengers in air-conditioned vehicles liven up, opened their doors to check where the commotion was coming from.

“Fire! Fire! Fire!”  The screaming continued from the panicky woman standing on the shoulder of the crowded road.

Crammed in the gridlock was a battered saloon car with smoke billowing from the bonnet.  It was obvious the car had seen better days.

Good Samaritans oblivious of possible explosions rushed with tree branches, fire extinguishers and even a bucket of water to the scene.

The bonnet was forced open without much effort but to the shock of many, the smoke was actually steam.

In the automotive world, smoke does not necessarily mean fire. Depending on the age of the jalopy, 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 ‘blowing’ odours, something has gone wrong.

However, it is always better to be on the side of caution and ‘shout wolf’ than end up with a vehicle on flames.

Just as fire in our homes comes unannounced, so does the fire in your car arrive in seconds, but a car fire can be avoided with double diligence.

According to the Ghana National Fire Service figures, there were 2,781 vehicular fires within the last seven years, that is,   2007-June 2013.
That is an average of 397 vehicular fires annually and one daily.

The breakdown has 2012 recording the highest numbers with 662 fires; an increase from the 415 that occurred in 2011. While the 2010 figure was 367, six more than 2009 data, which was 361, in 2008, there were 323. The number of car fires in 2007 was 272. Interestingly, as of June 2013, there were already 381 fire incidents involving cars.

The causes of vehicular fires vary but the most easily identifiable ones include electrical faults and inadequate car maintenance practices.

While it’s easy to sit in and drive your vehicle, there is always the need to undertake basic daily maintenance routines. Your car, just like yourself, needs daily care.

That, Mr Ellis Robinson Okoe, the Head of Public Relations of the Ghana National Fire Service, said was necessary to reduce car fires.

“Every driver needs to perform the cockpit drill every morning. This includes checking water and oil levels, hand brake, seat belt, steering and doors sometimes it is even important to check that your battery terminals are properly fixed.”

Oil leaks are a major potential fire hazard in vehicles and in some instances, a little caroteness at the fuel station or filling the tank through the use of funnel or even gallons.

Oil spilled on a hot exhaust manifold can cause a fire.

Fire Signs
According to Robert Quaye, an auto electrician, an early hint of a problem is a fuse that blows more than once. The source of the triggered fuse could be either a damaged part or a wiring problem. Both issues can be hazardous and should be handled with speed.

It is always important that a driver remains alert at all times. Driving with all your senses-eyes, ears and nose could save not just your life but your pocket as well as fires come unannounced.

The list of safety measures is long but Mr Okoe said being alert pays off.

“When you are driving and you realise that the temperature of the vehicle goes up, you have to stop and check.When your nose picks an unfamiliar smell, you have to stop and check because the fire does not just start, it starts from heat, smothering smoke before it turns into fire.”

“It could be that your fuel is even leaking. It could be one of the tubes leaking and once it gets into contact with the exhaust, there is likely to be fire.”

The fire officer cited the example of a colleague who was on the wheels and picked up a fuel scent in his car.

“He stopped and checked only to realise that a tube had been disjointed from the source, so the fuel was just pouring. If there was any spark from any metal or even heat, the vehicle would have burnt down.”

It does not take much effort to double check that the fuel pump cap is securely fitted. 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.

Ensuring a rigid maintenance schedule, Mr Quaye said was an easy preventive measure for vehicular fires.
He said it was always crucial to include a check of the fuel system in regular maintenance schedules as electrical or fuel system problems were the major causes of car fires.

“Another source of exhaust-related fires is the catalytic converter, the cylindrical unit located in the exhaust pipe, forward of the muffler (which is normally slightly larger in size). Catalytic converters are so hot they can ignite dried grass directly under the parked vehicle,” the auto electrician said.

While the use of the compressed gas or Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) has become part of the country’s transport fibre, there appears to be no laws regulating its use.

The use of the cylinders without recourse to safety standards, Mr Oko said, was dangerous.
“Some vehicles were not manufactured to use the LPG. When they are brought here, people devise ways of fixing LPG on the vehicle. It means a lot of alterations have been done to the car before the LPG is fixed. That is a potential source of vehicular fire.

“Most of the fires occur when they are switching from fuel to LPG or vice-versa. Because there are alterations in the mechanism, anything can happen at any time,” he added.

Response Times
The first response to a suspected vehicle fire is to pull over immediately. Fire feeds off oxygen and even slow forward motion will force air into the engine compartment, basically stoking the fire.

 Exploding cars are generally the stuff of crime dramas, but it's still best to stop in an area away from buildings and people, if you have that option. Burning plastics and other materials can produce toxic gases—maybe not as visually exciting as an explosion, but best not to expose yourself or bystanders.

Next, get yourself and passengers out of the car. However, the following recommendations about trying to put out the fire may seem contradictory, and what you do is dependent on the availability of a fire extinguisher, your ability to use it and your knowledge of auto mechanics.

Some sources discourage trying to put the fire out on your own. 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, and one rated ABC for all types of fires is the best.

If the fire is relatively small and in the interior, use your extinguisher. (Closing the doors and windows may also smother the fire.) 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.

While explosions from car fires are rare, the true danger is the toxic fumes. Another consideration is a vehicle equipped with gas shock absorbers or gas struts. Under intense heat both can explode and turn into lethal projectiles.

That's a lot to remember, so if you forget everything else, as smoke is billowing out of your car, just remember to pull over, turn off the ignition, get everyone out of the vehicle and call for help


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