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TOPIC: Fire & Life Safety Training

INSTRUCTORS: Mac and Sheri McCoy

Fire in an RV is a terrifying thought. Perhaps that is why people tend to consider it one of those things that will only happen to the "other people". "Mac" McCoy should know. Before his retirement in 1999, he had been a paramedic, deputy sheriff and, most recently, the Oregon State Fire Service Training Coordinator. His class begins with a blaze -- he shows pictures of the complete devastation that the some 20,000 reported RV fires a year can cause. Last year, 80% of these fires were in motorhomes, with most of those being gas powered motorhomes. Often these were transmission fires. Mac stresses the need for a transmission heat indicator installed in your rig. 35% of RV fires are caused by 12 volt shorts. Check your extinguishers. Just because the needle shows in the green does not mean the fire extinguisher will work. To check a category BC dry powder type extinguisher, (the sort used for flammable or combustible liquids and energized electrical fires), turn the extinguisher upside down and tap on the bottom. It should sound drum-like. If not, the powder has settled. Tap it until it sounds hollow and then gently drop it from a height of a few inches. It should bounce slightly.

The State of Idaho once sued a couple for $2 million for starting a forest fire. Driving along they were unable to tell that a flat on their tow vehicle was causing sparks which started the blaze. A color screen for the towed car camera monitor will make it easier to check the condition of your towed vehicle. Practice detaching your towed in 15 seconds or less.

A smoke detector is the most important device you can have in your rig. Make sure it is a UL 217 integral battery-operated detector. Carbon Monoxide and LPG gas detectors are also essential. The LPG detector should be on the wall as close to the floor as possible in the kitchen area. The carbon monoxide detector should be 4 feet above the floor, since this type of gas is lighter than oxygen and "floats". It should be in the bedroom area, close to the roof. Since carbon monoxide could enter your coach from a neighbors generator, install another detector in the living room area at mid-height. Make sure all detectors are approved for use in RVs.

Many have noticed that the smoke detector goes off when the toaster is used. Several ideas were put forth to cure this annoying problem. Move the kitchen smoke detector to the driver's compartment. Or -- put a shower cap or baggie over the detector when cooking. Just remember to remove it when the meal is finished! Or -- get a detector with a hush button, push the button and the detector will stop for 15 minutes -- then "chirp" to signal it's back on duty.

The National Fire Protection Agency ("NFPA") mandates the rules for fire extinguishers and escape hatches for RVs. These rules require a 5 pound "BC" rated fire extinguisher near each exit. Know how to use it! A fire usually starts at the front of the rig and moves to the rear. Motorhome fires in a rig are usually type A type fires -- common combustibles -- wood, paper etc. , and the only required extinguishers on board frequently are BC types ( for flammable liquids and gasses or electrical equipment). Type A type fire extinguishers belong inside the coach and the BC type belongs under it -- in one of the compartments. You should have 5 extinguishers -- one for the drivers compartment, one for the kitchen, one for the bedroom, one under the coach in a storage compartment and one in your towed vehicle.

Have a plan in case of fire. Find your escape windows. Unless they are the type which have a "string" around them, open them and practice getting out. This is much easier to do when you are not in a panic situation. If you cannot put out a fire in the first 30-45 seconds, get away from the fire, leave it to the fire department.

Teach your guests, especially young ones, how to open the door of your rig. Many models work differently, and escaping from a fire is not the time to be learning how to use the door latch.

Before operating your stove or oven, open a window and the overhead venting on an exhaust fan. If you smell gas, extinguish all open flames (pilot lights, lamps, smoking materials, etc.), shut off the gas supply, open doors and leave the unit until the odor is gone. Have the system checked before you use it again.

Make sure that any after market product you get for your rig has been approved by RVIA. Many items, such as under cabinet mounted toasters, etc. are fine for a house, but the RV is subject to a great deal of shaking as it goes down the road. Home implements may not be able to stand up to this stress. Use stainless steel not aluminum cookware. Aluminum will melt and then burn.

Refrigerators do not need to run while you drive. Most will keep food cold or frozen for eight hours. Driving with propane on can add to the danger is you are involved in an accident or have a fire. If you will be driving 6 - 8 hours in a day, turn the refrigerator up to its highest setting the night before you leave, and then turn it off when you begin your next day's travels. You can purchase devices that will circulate cool air through the refrigerator while you are traveling.

When you stop at a rest stop along the highway, open the hood of your car or RV to let the engine cool.

It is safer to use small canisters with your gas barbecue than to tee into your propane supply.

If you smell ammonia in your refrigerator, replace the unit. It is cooled by ammonia and hydrogen. If something, a bird or insect nest, etc. is blocking the vent, an explosion can easily occur. Therefore, after your rig has been stored for a period of time, check it thoroughly.

Do not use cooking appliances for heating. Unlike homes, oxygen supply is limited due to the size of the RV. Cooking appliances need fresh air for safe operation, and the danger of asphyxiation is great -- greater when the appliance is used for a long time. Always cook with a range vent or nearby window open. Catalytic heaters should be vented; indeed, RVIA technicians are not allowed to install non-vented heaters.

Repair engine or transmission oil leaks as soon as possible. Automatic transmission fluid will ignite easily and burn very quickly. It can also ignite when it comes in contact with the exhaust system. A hard-working engine manifold can get as hot as 900 degrees, and with the heavy insulation in the compartment the heat is reflected back to the top of the engine.

In order to extinguish an engine fire, you will have to get to the top of the engine. If necessary, have something to punch holes in the hood (of the RV or tow vehicle) so that the extinguisher can get to the source of the blaze. Attack the fire from the outside. Carry a fire extinguisher in your towed vehicle. Inspect your engine compartment frequently, and keep it clean. Check your hydraulic hoses for cracks or leaks.

The class covered four of the five classes of fire -- including: A -- common combustible (wood, paper etc.) 46% of these fires are successfully put out. Most of the RV fires will be class A; B -- flammable or combustible liquids (gas, transmission fluid, brake fluid, cooking grease). Diesel fuel is a now considered a flammable liquid. 45% of these are successfully put out; C -- energized electrical, 110, 120, or 240 volts. Only 8% of these are successfully put out. Cut the fire off from its source -- i.e. unplug whatever is afire, and the fire becomes a class A fire; D -- exotic flammable metals. 1% success here.

If you should have a fire while plugged in to shore power, be sure to unplug immediately to cut the current from the fire. If boondocking, turn off the generator or inverter.

The RV extinguishers furnished with new units are usually not rated for class A fires. (Ours was not.). Dry powder extinguishers are corrosive when they touch parts of the unit not burning. In addition, the area covered by this type of fire extinguisher may not be enough to put out the fire. Halon extinguishers were outlawed by the Montreal Protocols: they are hazardous to the ozone layer. They are also possibly carcinogenic. A CO2 extinguisher is hazardous, and of no use in the wind. It is also very heavy.

Turn off the propane when you are having your tanks filled. Often the propane dealer will vent his hose under your rig before he starts the filling process. Should your refrigerator choose that particular moment to turn on, there could easily be a fire.

The last portion of this class was spent (literally) in putting out fires. There was a specially designated site where the fires could be started (using a flamethrower) and various types of extinguishers were demonstrated . This was "woman's day", and several ladies volunteered to test the extinguishers. The first testor had an extinguisher in which the dry powder had compacted and the extinguisher wouldn't work. Scary! The next woman was given an extinguisher which was operated by pushing a small white button on the top of the handle. The problem with this extinguisher was she wasn't strong enough to depress the button sufficiently to make it work. Meantime the fire grew more and more intense. I could begin to sense the feeling of panic often associated with fires. It was fascinating to see how easily fires could re-ignite; just when you thought it was out, back it came.

Be aware that the most important thing is the safety of the occupants. If you cannot extinguish the fire don't let it extinguish you.

This is class was extremely well presented. It is always popular and I heard several people say that they thought quite differently about RV fires now. This class should be a requirement for RVers. I recently completed my third class with Mac and Sheri MacCoy -- each time I learn something new. Mac sells his own package of fire extinguishers which were deveoped specifically for the RV market, and which handle Class A, as well as the "BC" type fires. He also sells them as a package as described above. [Stephanie]