Truck Fires: A Burning Issue

VEHICLES FIRES CAN QUICKLY burn up a waste company's profits. Although such accidents tend to occur less frequently than other types of losses in the waste industry, fires tend to be costly. Because of the potential for serious loss, it is important to know why vehicle fires occur and what can be done to prevent them or limit their damage.

As with any type of fire loss, the exact cause of a vehicle fire often is difficult or impossible to determine for certain. Many fires occur while the vehicle is parked overnight, leaving only the charred remains as evidence for determining a cause. However, a recent study about vehicle fires revealed several primary causes.

According to the study, about half of waste vehicle fires were found to be electrical. Even when an unloaded waste vehicle burns overnight, it often seems to fit the pattern of an electrical fire.

Although electrical fires have occurred on tractors and roll-offs, the vehicles that seem to be most susceptible to electrical fires are front loaders, rear loaders, side loaders and certain recycling trucks. Using battery-disconnect switches, as well as the routine inspection and proper maintenance of electrical cables, are key to reducing the likelihood of electrical vehicle fires.

Hot loads present the greatest problem when a waste truck or transfer trailer is left loaded overnight. Making sure each truck or trailer is empty at the end of the day and training drivers to spot and deal with hot loads can prevent equipment loss due to a hot load fire. Hot loads accounted for 25 percent of the waste vehicle fires in the study.

When a hot load occurs during a route, a well-trained driver will normally eject the load into the street. There may be cleanup costs involved, but the truck is rarely lost in those situations.

The final 25 percent of waste vehicle fires in the study were caused by a variety of factors. Some fires could be attributed to hydraulic fluid leaks, frozen wheel bearings, tire fire, or holes in the exhaust system. Additionally, engine compartment fires often were related to fuel or oil leaks, but they also could have been caused by trash or debris entering the engine compartment. Incidences of engine compartment fires, fluid leak fires, and tire and wheel bearing fires can be greatly reduced by proper maintenance procedures and routine inspection of hydraulic hoses, fuel lines and the exhaust system. Also, because those types of fire almost always occur when the vehicle is in use, prompt action by the driver may be able to save the truck from becoming a total loss.

To reduce the risk of waste vehicle fires, fleets should take the following precautions:

  1. Ensure that battery disconnect switches are installed on all refuse trucks. Also, establish a written company policy regarding the mandatory use of the switches when trucks are parked. Periodically spot-check trucks to verify that drivers are using the battery disconnect switches.

  2. Conduct monthly documented inspections of all battery cables, including checking for frayed cables, missing cable tie-downs, missing through-hole grommets, and buildup of grease and debris. A variety of after-market battery cable-insulating materials are available to reinforce problem areas.

  3. Conduct monthly inspections of the fuel lines, crankcase, hydraulic hoses and the exhaust system. All leaks should be repaired and any leakage cleaned up.

  4. Establish a written company policy regarding driver procedures for handling hot loads and other vehicle fires. Also, make sure drivers keep vehicles clean, especially behind the blade.

  5. Conduct safety meetings for current drivers and establish training for all new drivers to ensure everyone is familiar with company policies concerning vehicle fires. Meetings should be held at least once a year.

  6. Frequently remind drivers of the importance of preventing vehicle fires and how to deal with them. This can be accomplished with bulletin board messages, paycheck stuffers and reminders during regular driver safety meetings.

  7. Avoid leaving waste trucks and transfer trailers loaded overnight.