Performing monthly examinations of your motorhome, developing a fire safety plan, and having proper fire extinguishers on board will help to keep you and yours safe and secure.
By Jim Brightly
While preparing for a trip some years back, my wife, Saraine, was driving our sport-utility vehicle to the grocery store to load up on supplies when she thought she smelled gasoline. When she jumped out and opened the hood to check, she discovered a fire in the engine compartment.
Having been a school bus driver for years, she had received fire safety training and knew exactly what to do. She grabbed the fire extinguisher, pulled the pin, aimed the extinguisher’s nozzle at the base of the flames, and squeezed the trigger. Almost immediately the engine compartment was filled with a white cloud instead of the black billows of acrid smoke that had escaped when the hood was popped open.
As a precaution, although Saraine felt sure the fire was out, she had our 15-year-old daughter, Kim, and her friend, who were along for the ride, run to a nearby gas station to call the fire department (this was before cell phones became popular). When the firemen arrived, they determined that the fire was indeed out, and they discovered that it had been caused by a faulty fuel line that had cracked and sprayed raw gas onto the hot exhaust headers. What could have been a tragedy was avoided by Saraine’s quick thinking and actions, and her knowledge of the correct method to extinguish the fire. In fact, after the vehicle was towed home, all I had to do to make it drivable again was to replace a set of plug wires and the faulty fuel line.
Fortunately, that was the worst fire incident we ever experienced. The fire didn’t even delay our upcoming trip. But a fire can cause thousands of dollars of damage to the vehicle, as well as personal injury and even death to its occupants. How many of us have seen pictures of burnt-out motorhomes that were total losses? According to insurance records, fire is one of the main causes of RV loss in America today. It is estimated that more than 12,000 RV fires occur a year, with about a dozen deaths involved. And statistics compiled by RV Alliance America, C95, show that approximately half of the fires erupt while the RV is parked.
The causes of RV fires vary widely, but there are several that remain near the top of the statistics year after year. Engine and electrical fires are consistently the greatest cause of loss. In fact, roughly 70 percent of coach fires start in the engine compartment, involving electrical components and flammable-combustible gases and liquids.
Without question, the primary rule of RV fire safety is to preserve lives. The priority is to get everyone safely out of the coach without injury. So, be sure your smoke detectors are working and replace the batteries twice a year (many people use the time changes in the spring and fall to remind them to replace detector batteries). Only after everyone is clear of the motorhome and there is no danger to yourself or others should you use the fire extinguishers.
Just as you did in school and perhaps still do at work, develop a fire escape plan and perform regular fire drills. Developing a plan and practicing it will help immensely if you need to make quick decisions during a real emergency. Executing the fire escape plan needs to become second nature “” not something you have to think about in the face of danger.
Since there’s no way to know when or where a fire may occur, the first part of your fire safety plan should include two escape routes “” one for the front of the motorhome and one for the rear. Pick an assembly point outside and safely away from the motorhome so everyone can be accounted for. If you have traveling guests, be sure each individual is aware of the fire safety plan and what his or her part is during the evacuation. Carrying a cell phone is an excellent safety precaution itself. Be sure older children know how to dial 911 or reach help on any of the communications devices in the motorhome.
You should have at least four fire extinguishers in your motorhome: one at the entrance, one in the galley, one in the main sleeping compartment (bedroom), and one outside your coach in an unlocked storage compartment. If you travel with a towed car, you also should carry one in that vehicle. Mount the extinguishers in visible and easy-to-reach places, located near but not in the hazard areas. Examine them monthly to confirm that they are in working condition and haven’t lost pressure. And make sure you and everyone in your traveling party know how to use them. If you don’t know how to determine whether your extinguishers are working or if you don’t know how to use them, go to your local fire department for assistance. They may offer classes in fire safety and fire extinguisher use, or your FMCA chapter may be able to call on the local fire department to conduct classes at your next rally so everyone has the opportunity to learn more about these important issues.
If you attend an FMCA international convention or area rally, be sure to take part in the “Fire & Life Safety” seminar conducted by veteran firefighter Mac McCoy and cosponsored by FMCA and RV Alliance America. This seminar includes classroom time as well as an opportunity to fight a live fire with various types of extinguishers.
When using an extinguisher to put out surface flames, make sure to totally penetrate the fuel so that it’s cooled. Otherwise, the fire can flare up again. This is when having multiple fire extinguishers available is important. Should you use your only fire extinguisher to stop the fire and don’t have another one to cool the area down, the fire could restart again and you won’t have anything to fight it with.
Besides using fire extinguishers, if you have a quick-disconnect fitting on your water hookup, these hoses can be unhooked instantly and be used to fight a fire. If a nearby vehicle is burning and you cannot move your coach, you may be able to save your motorhome by keeping it hosed down. However, make sure you’re not putting yourself or others in danger by doing so.
Fire extinguishers are classified based on the type of burning materials they are able to extinguish. The most common classes are A, B, and C. A Class A extinguisher works on ordinary combustibles, such as wood, cloth, rubber, paper, many plastics, and fiberglass “” basically anything that leaves an ash. A Class B extinguisher is for flammable liquids, such as gasoline, oil, and oil-based paint. A Class C extinguisher is used for energized electrical equipment, such as wiring, fuse boxes, circuit breakers, machinery, and appliances. Class C does not include fires involving 12-volt-DC equipment. Once shore power is disconnected and the inverter or generator is turned off, a fire that was a Class C fire would change to a Class A fire.
The National Fire Protection Association requires that all motorhomes be equipped with a portable fire extinguisher that is effective on both Class B and Class C fires. The guidelines do not require that your extinguisher have a Class A rating.
Fire extinguishers are valuable tools should a fire occur, but you should be aware of their limitations. Attempt to extinguish the fire only within strict and safe guidelines, and don’t cause greater harm by staying too long at the fire. When fighting the fire is no longer safe, evacuate immediately.
Schedule a monthly fire safety inspection of your coach. Be sure to inspect the engine compartment and check all radiator and coolant hoses for firmness, clamp tightness, swelling, cracking, and signs of leaking. Replace hoses on a periodic basis or as needed. If you find any signs of radiator or hose problems, have them repaired by a qualified person if you don’t feel comfortable performing the task yourself. Remember, a pinhole leak in a radiator or heater hose can spray antifreeze onto hot engine parts. Since antifreeze contains ethylene glycol concentrate and water, when the water boils off, the remaining ethylene glycol can burst into flames should it become too hot.
A hard-working engine manifold can reach temperatures up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit. The heavy insulation used in the engine compartment reflects the heat toward the top of the engine and a fire could result. In many type A coaches, getting a direct shot from your extinguisher to the top of the engine is all but impossible. Remember, if you cannot get to the top of the engine, you may have great difficulty putting out a fire in that area.
If you’re heading into a campground at the top of a grade, leave the engine idling while you register. After a long haul up a steep grade, don’t stop and turn off your engine without allowing it to cool. Turning off the engine too suddenly may cause the transmission temperature to continue to rise. With the engine off, the coolant is no longer circulating through the radiator, bleeding off the heat. Instead of shutting down immediately, allow a cool-down period.
Grease, oil, and road grime can build up on engines and transmissions, making them run hotter. The grime itself usually isn’t a fire hazard, but if there’s a fuel leak or short-circuited wire, oil-soaked road grime could contribute to a stubborn, hard-to-extinguish fire. Keep your coach’s drivetrain and chassis clean, and your RV will run cooler, more economically, and longer.
Nearly 20 percent of motorhome fires are caused by tire or brake problems. In many cases, a tire in a dual setup will go flat, then begin to shred, scuff, and heat up. When it becomes hot enough, it can burst into flames; this can happen long before the driver feels any change in handling. In many motorhome designs, the galley (with its propane lines) sits directly over the rear duals, and catastrophe can happen without warning. At each stop, give your tires at least a visual check. Remember, a pressure gauge reading on hot tires isn’t accurate. Tap the duals with a club and listen for a difference in sound; you can often tell if one is going soft. With modern tools, doing a tire check at each stop can be even easier. Auto parts stores now offer infrared sensors that can give you a heat reading on each tire. Once you determine what the normal running tire temperature should be, a quick use of the sensor at each stop is a breeze. However, none of these on-the-road checks should take the place of the daily pressure check you should perform before hitting the road each morning while the tires are still cold.
A dragging brake can create enough friction heat to ignite a tire or the brake fluid. If you feel the brake pedal getting mushy on hot days, a hung-up shoe could be the problem. Catch this early and it won’t become a bigger problem.
The remaining causes of fires can vary even more widely in a motorhome than in a permanent home. Fires can be caused by faulty generators, fuel/LP-gas leaks, cooking carelessness, and an array of unknown origins.
When creating those epicurean delights in the galley, use even more caution in your coach than you do at home. Your galley is more compact, which means everything that can catch fire is probably closer to the stove. Although some people travel with their appliances “” particularly the refrigerator or water heater “” operating on LP gas, this is not recommended. Whenever the motorhome is moving, the main valve from the LP-gas tank to the coach should be shut off to reduce the chances of a fire fueled by a broken LP-gas line in the event of an accident.
Propane, just like gasoline, is an efficient accelerant when it comes to a fire, but very few fires can be attributed to the propane tank itself. If your coach is equipped with LP gas and a fire starts, the LP gas can accelerate the fire. Every passenger old enough and strong enough to close the gas valve needs to know where it is and how it operates so that it can be shut off in an emergency. This should be part of your fire drill.
Another potential hazard area is in the battery case. Since vented batteries produce explosive gases, keep sparks, flames, and cigarettes away from them. Do not produce sparks with cable clamps or tools, and ventilate when charging or using them in an enclosed space. Always shield your eyes when working near batteries, and keep the vent caps tight. Also, consider replacing your batteries with absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries when the next replacement time comes up. These are not vented and so are more safely used in motorhomes.
It is also important to teach each passenger how to disconnect from shore power (again, this should be part of the fire drill). While you’re teaching your passengers the fire escape plan, take the time to give them a safety walk-through. Show them how the door works from the inside (including the deadbolt), and how to get out if the main door is unusable or inaccessible. Show them the locations of all your fire extinguishers and demonstrate how they work. And make sure they know both the forward and the rear exit plans.
Keep a written inventory of the items you have in your motorhome and review and update it each time you replace the batteries in your smoke detectors (at the spring and fall time changes). Take photos and/or videos of all your important possessions. Keep the written inventory, photo records, and videotapes together, and give them to a trustworthy friend or relative to retain, or rent a safety deposit box at your home bank and keep them there.
Make sure your coach’s insurance policy covers your personal possessions, and that they can be replaced with very little cost to you should an incident occur. If you do any improvements or repairs to your coach, keep the receipts with your inventory and photo records “” you wouldn’t want to be forced to accept average market value for your coach without the additional costs of your improvements. And, of course, make sure your living expenses and transportation home are covered in case there’s a fire.
Remember, always leave large fires to the fire department, and only fight small fires that are contained, within reach, and that you can fight with your back toward a safe escape. If you have the slightest doubt as to whether you should fight the fire, don’t attempt it! Always keep in mind the most important fire safety rule: Save lives first and property second.
Special thanks to Mac McCoy and RV Alliance America, C95, for providing much of the basic research information that went into this article.
Extinguishing A Fire
There is a simple way to remember the steps to using your extinguisher to fight a fire “” it’s called the P.A.S.S. procedure. Here are the four steps to follow:
1. PULL the pin. This unlocks the operating lever and allows you to discharge the contents of the extinguisher.
2. AIM low. Point the nozzle or hose at the base of the fire.
3. SQUEEZE the lever above the handle. This discharges the extinguishing agent. Releasing the lever will stop the discharge.
4. SWEEP from side to side. Moving carefully toward the fire, keep the extinguisher aimed at the base of the fire and sweep back and forth until the flames appear to be out.