Developing a fire safety plan and having plenty of proper fire extinguishers on and in your coach will help to keep you safe and secure.
By Jim Brightly, F358406
Last year my wife and I were emerging from a Cracker Barrel restaurant when we spotted a distraught woman trying to open her pickup’s hood. Since fairly heavy smoke was billowing from beneath the hood, we ran over to help. While Saraine calmed the lady, I grabbed a fire extinguisher from our towable “” it and our motorhome were in a nearby parking slot “” and popped the truck’s hood. Luckily, it was an electrical fire and not a gas fire, so the flames weren’t very high. I sprayed the smoking area, waited a few minutes, and sprayed it again.
After making sure the fire was completely out, I inspected the truck’s engine compartment and told the lady that it seemed likely new spark plug wires and maybe a few other wires were all that would need to be replaced and she’d be back on the road. She called a tow truck and the driver confirmed my diagnosis. The last we saw of the disabled pickup, it was hooked up to the tow truck and following it down the street.
Over the years, we’ve experienced several vehicle fires. Fortunately for us, all but one incident involved vehicles that weren’t ours. These experiences have taught us the value of preventative maintenance. 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 each year, resulting in about a dozen deaths. Statistics compiled by Aon Recreation Insurance, C95, show that approximately half of the fires erupt while the RV is parked.
The causes of RV fires vary widely, but several of them remain near the top of the statistics year after year. Engine and electrical fires are consistently the greatest causes 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 as a reminder 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.
And don’t forget your pets. For example, keep the leashes handy (we store ours next to the main door so they are always there when we need them), as you don’t want your dogs running around in traffic. And be sure to include your pets in the evacuation plans.
Since there’s no way to know when or where a fire may occur, the first part of your fire safety plan should include at least two escape routes “” one for the front of the motorhome and one for the rear. If your coach is a type A or bus conversion, exits include the main door, the driver’s door (if so equipped), and the emergency exit windows. If it’s a type B or C, choices include the main door, the two front cab doors, and the emergency exit windows. Pick an assembly point outside and safely away from the motorhome where 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 in itself. Be sure older children know how to dial 911 or reach help on any of the communications devices in the motorhome.
Depending upon the size of your coach, you should have at least three or four fire extinguishers in your motorhome: one at the entrance, one in the galley (in our 25-foot coach these two extinguishers are one and the same), 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 potential hazard areas. Examine them after each storage period and monthly while traveling to confirm that they are in working condition and haven’t lost pressure. Make sure you and everyone in your traveling party know how to use them. If you aren’t sure 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. 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. 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 source 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 and you won’t have anything with which to fight it.
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; the fires themselves are classified in the same manner. Class A extinguishers work on ordinary combustibles, such as wood, cloth, rubber, paper, many plastics, and fiberglass “” basically anything that leaves an ash. Class B extinguishers are for flammable liquids, such as gasoline, oil, and oil-based paint. Class C extinguishers are 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.
Besides using fire extinguishers, if you have a quick-disconnect fitting on your water hookup and your campsite, 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.
Schedule a monthly fire safety inspection of your coach. Be sure to examine 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.
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, and 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, but it can give you an indication of a low tire “” just don’t get nervous if the pressure in the warm tires is higher than it’s supposed to be (don’t adjust air pressure when the tire is hot except to add more air). With modern tools, doing a tire check at each stop can be even easier. Auto parts stores sell 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. 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. In addition, electronic pressure monitoring devices can give you a warm and fuzzy feeling while driving, especially if you include your towable in the system.
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.
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 be sure to ventilate when charging or using batteries 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.
Please remember that I’m not trying to be an alarmist here; I’m just trying to show you ways to be prepared should a fire occur. Fortunately, motorhome fires, when compared to the thousands and thousands of coaches on the road, are fairly rare. As we’ve already stated, roughly 70 percent of motorhome fires begin in the engine compartment, and another 20 percent can be attributed to tire and service brake problems, so only about 10 percent of coach fires can be caused by other means. These means 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.
Your galley is more compact than in a stationary home, 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, many people do not recommend this practice. According to them, 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 (or LP gas or LPG) is the direct cause of fires in less than one percent of the total number of coach fires. In other words, it’s extremely rare. But you should be aware that driving with the LPG on is a gamble, and if you’re involved in an accident, damage can be much worse. 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.
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 costs are covered in case there’s a fire.
Remember, always leave large fires to the fire department, and attempt to extinguish only 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.
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.
Cut these four steps out and tape a copy near each fire extinguisher so that you can review them each time you verify the extinguisher’s condition.