Fighting Vehicle Fires in Parking Garages

We’ve all seen the effects of a vehicle fire during our careers: massive amounts of black smoke pouring out of the vehicle due to the materials involved; fuel or other flammable liquids igniting; shocks, struts, bumpers and/or tires exploding; and the ever-increasing list of unknown contents that we may find inside the vehicle. But when your engine company responds to a report of a vehicle fire located inside a parking garage, you need to have your mind wrapped around the idea that this could be more than just a routine car fire. The effects can be magnified inside a parking structure, primarily because the smoke is trapped, which limits visibility, and you might not be able to safely attack from the four corner angles of the car due to its location and adjacent cars, columns or walls.

There are many variables involved in fighting a car fire in a parking garage, including structure type, access, grade or elevation changes, confined spaces or areas trapping heat and smoke, exposures and fire department response. In this article, we’ll discuss some of these variables, as well as tactical options as you respond on the engine company.

Structure Type
From our experience, parking structures/garages are either non-combustible, independent structures or non-combustible, integrated portions of a much larger building. They can range in height from one story to high-rise structures, or they can be several levels below grade and take up an enormous amount of space. These garages can also be open-air structures with no outer walls, or fully enclosed structures, which of course changes the firefighting environment.

Parking garages are usually classified as either stand-alone or integrated structures. The stand-alone garage offers one benefit above the integrated structure: All the smoke, heat and damage caused by the fire won’t affect an occupied portion of a building. The integrated garage is usually attached to another, larger building, and can be found under the main building, attached to the side or occupying the first few floors of a high-rise. When car fires occur in these garage spaces, smoke and byproducts of combustion can travel through voids, elevator shafts, stairwells and utility areas into the occupied portions of the attached structure, making the incident a more serious emergency. Sometimes, however, these enclosed or integrated garages have smoke-removal systems that will aid in removing the smoke.

Accessing the Fire
When accessing parking garage fires, use the stairwells leading to the level on which the fire was reported or located. Once you reach the fire floor, it’s best to have a firefighter or team of firefighters perform a quick reconnaissance of the location of the fire and determine the best attack point for a variety of reasons, one being the grade of the garage. These structures include grades on each parking level to allow for vehicles of different heights to travel up or down. Therefore, it’s important to attempt to attack from the upper portion of the grade so your nozzle team isn’t standing in the direct line of flammable run-off in the event of a well-involved fire or rupture of a fuel tank.

Tip: Take the time to determine the shortest route to the fire by speaking with parking attendants, checking alarm panels and performing simple reconnaissance. Often, parking structures cover large areas and have multiple stairwells. If you go too fast and pick the wrong attack point, you may not reach the fire with your hoselines or you may have to use a great deal of hose.

Level of Involvement
Determining what’s on fire and how much of it is burning is important, because like other types of fires, doing so will help you quickly determine whether you can handle the response with your current resources or if you need to request more help. It’s also important to determine the necessary tactics. Ask yourself:

  • Can an extinguisher control the fire, or is it being controlled by a built-in fire protection system upon arrival?
  • Will you need foam because of fuel involvement?
  • How many vehicles are involved?
  • Has the fire extended to void spaces?
  • Is it impeding an exit?
  • Do you have smoke-control issues?

Fire Department Response
Your response procedures for a vehicle on fire in a parking structure should be the same as those for a building fire. This means that, initially, you would send the same resources to the parking garage that you would send to a building fire of the same size. This is critical because access issues and unknown problems that may be encountered are very similar between the two.

As the first-due engine company, you should first size up the situation to determine what type of garage you’re responding to, which will then help you determine your options for attacking the fire.

We’ll first talk about the stand-alone, open-air garage, which is the easiest type of garage in which to fight a car fire. Usually, the smoke will travel out of this garage from the open outer walls and won’t cause a visibility issue as you attack the fire. But you should still perform reconnaissance first to determine the best point of attack and then determine your method of attack. There are several methods to choose from:
1. Stretch a line from the engine via the closest stairwell to the vehicle fire.

  • Pros: You use your apparatus and hoseline stretches just as you would for most building fires so you don’t have to rely on building systems.
  • Cons: Could require a great deal of hose and, depending on elevation and horizontal distance once on the fire level, it could be impractical.

2. Stretch a line from the standpipe riser in the stairwell that’s closest to the fire (if a riser is present).

  • Pros: Uses less hose and provides an anchored point of refuge so firefighters can follow the hose back to safety if needed. It also provides a high-gpm fireline from the riser if using 2½” hose as a standard for standpipe operations.
  • Cons: Often, these are dry standpipe systems, making it necessary to wait on the engine driver to supply water to the system and then expel all the air from the piping prior to hooking up hoses, which can take several minutes.

3. Stretch hose vertically via a rope from a location adjacent to the closest stairwell using hose from the engine to attack the fire.

  • Pros: Uses hose stored on the engine and allows you to quickly position hose exactly where you need it. It also uses less hose than if you were stretching via the stairs from the engine company. Further, you don’t have to wait on a supply to a dry riser or to expel the air from the system prior to hooking up hoses.
  • Cons: It’s difficult if the outer wall of the garage is made of thick concrete or it has an elaborate guardrail system. And if you aren’t careful, the hose won’t lead you to safety like a stretch from a stairwell or standpipe riser would. You’ll also need to strap or tie the hose before charging it to ensure it doesn’t slip. This is less necessary if you have a couple hundred feet of hose stretched on the floor of the parking garage.

4. Stretch hose from an aerial ladder (on upper floors) to the area adjacent to the fire using hose from an engine to attack the fire.

  • Pros: Same as option 3.
  • Cons: It often takes a few minutes to set the aerial and place it into service so you can stretch lines. It also places personnel in a more dangerous position when stretching hose up the aerial ladder.

From our experience, the quickest method for fighting upper-floor fires in parking garages is to stretch via a rope from the engine company because it’s fast and effective. That said, it shouldn’t be the only tactic you practice because it might not work in all situations.

Enclosed Garages
An enclosed or “integrated” parking garage may be part of a larger building, may have enclosed sidewalls and/or may be located below grade. In these structures, it’s vitally important to perform reconnaissance to ensure that you attack from the appropriate stairwell. To ensure the safety of all operating personnel, you should attack from the standpipe riser to provide a high-flow fireline and a safe point of refuge for personnel in the event that they must retreat.

Of course, no fire is “routine,” but engine companies can’t treat vehicle fires in parking structures in particular as routine, because they’re located in a structure that could present firefighters with specific accessibility and exposure problems. The key to success: Perform realistic drill scenarios using all the tactics available to you at the parking structures in your response areas so you can find out what works best for you.

The good thing about drilling in a parking garage is that you can usually operate the standpipe systems and flow water via each method to determine your best method of attack.

Master the Vertical Raise
Being able to raise hose and other objects vertically can be critical to fighting fires in parking garages. Homer Robertson provides two drills to help you master the vertical raise:

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