Developing an emergency exit plan and having several fire extinguishers in your motorhome will help to keep you and your loved ones secure while traveling and camping.
By Jim Brightly, F358406
Through the years, my family has had experience with several vehicle fires. All but one incident involved vehicles that weren’t ours “” our one personal brush with a vehicle fire did not involve our motorhome. But these experiences have taught us the value of fire prevention measures and being prepared in case a fire does occur.
A fire can cause thousands of dollars of damage to the vehicle, as well as personal injury and even death to its occupants. Many of you probably have seen frightening pictures of burnt-out motorhomes that were total losses. Because of the compact construction design of motorhomes and the many combustible materials contained within, a small fire can spread quickly, engulfing the vehicle in a very short amount of time. According to insurance records, fire is one of the main causes of RV loss in America. The most recent statistics available that spanned the years 2002 through 2005 showed an average of 3,100 RV fires each year. An average of seven deaths and 62 injuries were attributed to RV fires in each of those years. These statistics should give all RVers pause. In addition, it was found that approximately half of the fires erupted while the RV was parked.
The causes of RV fires vary widely, but several are 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. Nearly 20 percent of motorhome fires are caused by tire or brake problems, and approximately 10 percent of coach fires are caused by other means. However, before we begin to examine the various causes and methods of prevention, there’s something much more important to discuss.
Without question, the primary rule of RV fire safety is to preserve lives “” both people and pets. 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 switch out batteries when the time change occurs in the spring and the fall. Manufacturers of fire safety products recommend that all smoke detectors be tested on a regular basis and replaced after 10 years.
Just as you did in school and perhaps still do at work, you should have 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. If you own a Type A motorhome, the first choice is the main door, then the driver’s door (if equipped), and then the emergency exit windows. If you own a Type C motorhome, the first choice is the main door, then the two front cab doors, and then the emergency exit windows. And don’t forget your pets. We keep our dogs’ leashes next to the main door so they are always there when we need them. Make sure you include your pets in your evacuation plans so they aren’t running around in traffic or lost in the confusion.
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. Pick an assembly area 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. Only after everyone is clear of the motorhome “” and there is no danger to yourself or others “” should you attempt to use the fire extinguishers.
Depending upon the size of your motorhome, you should have at least three or four fire extinguishers in the vehicle: one at the entrance, one in the galley (in our 25-foot motorhome, one extinguisher covers both of these first areas), one in the main sleeping compartment (bedroom), and one outside your motorhome in an unlocked storage compartment. If you travel with a towed vehicle, you also should carry a fire extinguisher in that vehicle. Mount the extinguishers in visible and easy-to-reach places, located near but not in the 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. 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 contact 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 Family Reunion (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 live fires 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 down the area, the fire could restart again and you won’t have anything to fight it with.
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. 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 used to extinguish 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. However, a Class C extinguisher would not be appropriate for fires involving 12-volt-DC equipment. Once shore power is disconnected and the inverter or generator is turned off, 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. As I mentioned earlier, evacuate everyone else before attempting to fight the fire, and then, when it is no longer safe to fight the fire, evacuate the motorhome immediately.
Besides using fire extinguishers, if you have a quick-disconnect fitting on your water hookup at your campsite, the hose can be unhooked instantly and be used to fight a fire. If a nearby vehicle is burning and you cannot move your motorhome or towed vehicle, you may be able to protect your vehicle(s) by keeping them 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 motorhome. 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. Some types of antifreeze contain ethylene glycol concentrate that’s mixed with water. If there is a leak, the water boils off and 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 motorhomes, 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 is 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.
As noted previously, nearly 20 percent of motorhome fires are caused by tire or brake problems. Unless your motorhome’s tires are equipped with air pressure sensors, one of the tires in a rear dual setup can go flat and begin to shred, scuff, and heat up before the driver is even aware of a problem. When it becomes hot enough, it can burst into flames. In many motorhome designs, the galley (with its propane lines) sits directly above the rear duals, and a 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 is higher than its cold tire psi measurement. (It’s okay to add air to the tires when they are hot, but never let air out of tires after they have just been used.) 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. In addition, electronic pressure monitoring devices can give you a feeling of security 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. The same thing can be said about overusing the service brakes on a long downhill stretch. It’s much safer to use the transmission and an engine brake “” if equipped “” to control the motorhome’s speed. If you feel the brake pedal getting mushy on hot days, and you haven’t traveled down any significant hills in a while, a hung brake could be causing the problem. Catch this early and it won’t lead to bigger issues.
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 the batteries 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 the next time you need new batteries. These types of batteries are designed to reduce outgassing under normal charging conditions.
Please remember that I’m not trying to be an alarmist here; I’m just trying to show you ways to prevent a fire and be prepared should one occur. However, motorhome fires, when compared to the thousands and thousands of coaches on the road, are fairly rare. As I’ve already stated, the majority of motorhome fires begin in the engine compartment or can be attributed to tire and service brake problems. Only about 10 percent of motorhome fires have other causes. These other causes vary even more widely in a motorhome than in a permanent home. Fires can be caused by faulty generators, fuel or LP-gas leaks, cooking carelessness, and an array of unknown origins.
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, 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 motorhome should be shut off to reduce the chances of a fire fueled by a broken LP-gas line in the event of an accident.
LP gas, also commonly referred to as propane, is the direct cause of coach fires in less than one percent of the total number of fires. In other words, it’s extremely rare. But you should be aware that driving with the LP gas on can increase the risk of a fire, and if you’re involved in an accident, the resulting damage can be much worse. Propane, just like gasoline, is very flammable, but very few fires can be attributed to the propane tank itself. However, 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.
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. 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. If you do any improvements or repairs to your motorhome, keep the receipts with your inventory and photo records “” you wouldn’t want to be forced to accept average market value for your motorhome without the additional costs of your improvements. And, of course, make sure your living expenses and transportation back home are covered in case there’s a fire.
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.
Remember, leave large fires to the fire department, and attempt to extinguish only small fires that are 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.
Print up these four steps, cut them out, and tape a copy near each fire extinguisher so that you can review them each time you verify the extinguisher’s condition.