Despite what you see in the movies, cars usually do not explode after an accident. Dropping a match into liquid gasoline won't ignite it right away, although gas fumes catch fire easily enough. It often takes a roaring fire to light up a gas tank, which usually won't happen until the fire breaches said tank.
Unfortunately, even minor accidents can start a fire. Pinched wiring, short circuits or even a stuck radiator fan can provide the spark that leads to disaster. In more severe collisions, leaking engine oil, brake fluid or even engine coolant--yes, propylene glycol is flammable--are the primary danger. Like gasoline, these don't burn easily, but when they splatter onto the exhaust manifold--often a toasty 400 degrees centigrade--they can catch fire in the most spectacular fashion.
So, you've come across a smoldering wreck. Let's assume you've parked a safe distance (30m) away and have called the police. What else do you do?
1. Preparation is key. Here are two items you should consider keeping in your car:
* Fire extinguisher. A portable extinguisher can help put out smaller fires, or hold back large ones long enough to facilitate escape. The heavy metal canister can also be used to smash windows for emergency exits.
* Emergency rescue tool. A hammer with a blade slot built into the handle can be used to break windows and cut jammed seatbelts in case of an emergency. In a pinch, a tire wrench and a cutter can serve as substitutes.
2. Once properly armed, assess the situation quickly and thoroughly to develop a strategy. You're no good as a rescuer if you get yourself in trouble during the rescue.
3. Don't hesitate to shout for help. Many people are willing to assist in emergencies, but are frozen with indecision until someone tells them what to do.
4. If the car is simply steaming with no visible fire, check the passengers. See who can and can't be moved immediately.
5. If the driver is conscious, get him or her to unlock the doors and kill the ignition. Otherwise, open the door or break the window and kill the ignition yourself. This lessens the chance of stray sparks causing a fire, giving you more time to evacuate the victims.
6. If an engine bay fire has already started, speed is of the utmost importance. Spray your extinguisher under the hood of the car through any available opening. If you can pop the hood, do so and spray through the open slot. Do not lift the hood! This gives the fire more oxygen to burn with.
7. If the fire is already out of control, evacuating the victims takes precedence.
8. If the doors are jammed or the car is upside down, smash the windows thoroughly. Don't fret about the mess. Modern safety glass is designed to break into tiny pieces, and any cuts from these bits will be superficial.
9. Concentrate on unconscious and immobile victims. While you don't have time yet to deal with broken limbs, stabilize their heads against possible neck injuries.
10. If the fire has reached the cabin, rescue becomes riskier. Once the fire reaches the area of the gas tank, you may have only minutes before it catches fire. If possible, douse yourself with water before entering the cabin, and protect yourself from smoke inhalation. Make sure you can still perform the rescue before you commit!
11. Once you've moved all the victims to a safe distance, apply whatever first aid you can perform. Stabilize heads and necks against possible neck or spinal injury, and immobilize any broken limbs. Clean off burns with water and cover with a cold, wet towel. Check for vitals and breathing for unconscious victims, and perform CPR if necessary. Stay with the victims until medical assistance arrives.
Automobile fires are scary, but not instantly fatal. Remember these key points:
* Plan ahead;
* Push people to help; and
* Move quickly.
These help ensure a successful rescue and hopefully a happy ending for everyone involved. Except for the poor car, of course.
Artwork by Jayson Willie Lansang