CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 KELVIN L. MILLER
UAS Platoon, B Company,
4-3 Brigade Special Troops Battalion
Fort Stewart, Georgia
I have always taken safety seriously. However, after 18 years of sitting through the same safety classes over and over again, they tend to become mundane. In fact, it had gotten to the point where I could predict what the presenter was going to say. So why continue to sit through these classes? I’m an old guy, I’ve been married most of my career and I do not fall into any of the high-risk categories. I’ve learned, however, that you’re never too old or experienced to do something stupid.
It was a four-day weekend — and about two days after the customary holiday safety briefing. I was in my backyard, preparing my grill to barbeque some steaks and chicken. I arranged all of the charcoal into a little pyramid at the bottom of the grill, added lighter fluid and lit it with a lighter. The coals started to burn well and it looked like I had a good fire. I then placed the lighter and lighter fluid a safe distance from the grill and went into the house to check on the meat. When I returned, the coals were turning white and the needle on the grill's temperature sensor was rising. Pretty soon I’d be cooking … or so I thought.
I bounced back and forth between checking the grill and getting the meat ready. After about 20 minutes, though, I noticed the grill was losing heat. I checked the coals and they were not burning like they should. I decided they needed lighter fluid, so I gingerly added more. I thought the coals would immediately ignite the lighter fluid, but they didn’t. For some unknown reason, I closed the top of the grill and reached for the grill lighter.
At first, I could not find the lighter, but then remembered I had placed it away from the grill. After about two minutes, I opened the cover on the grill and attempted to light the coals. But the lighter would not light. After a quick check, I tried again. I was about five feet away from the coals when the lighter ignited. What happened afterward reminded me why I should have paid more attention to those grill safety classes.
I could see the vapor from the evaporated lighter fluid in the air about a second before I started the lighter. Unfortunately, the conscious part of my brain did not send the, “Hey, stupid, don't do that!” signal to the rest of my body in time. The flame from the lighter immediately ignited the vapor, creating a huge fireball. Although the conscious part of my brain had failed me, the subconscious part did not. It was instinct that caused me to close my eyes, turn my head to the right and dive backward away from the fire.
Luckily, the fireball disappeared as fast as it appeared. I laid on the ground in shock over what had just happened. The lower part of my arms, my eyebrows and all of the hair on top of my head turned white. I looked liked a frostbitten old man. I quickly gathered my senses, checked the fire and called my wife outside to help (and give me a lecture).
I was lucky. Besides the temporary loss of hair, I received only mild first-degree burns similar to sunburn. I also learned that just because I’ve barbequed for more than 25 years (since I was 12) that I’m never too old or experienced to have an accident. Now, I actively participate in holiday safety briefings and fire-prevention classes. I share my story with both older and younger Soldiers.
I learned a valuable lesson that day: Never be complacent around flammables. The temperature from the coals, the outside air temperature, the elapsed time and the confined space caused a dangerous buildup of lighter fluid vapor. Once a spark was added, a fireball was almost a definite result.
It is best not to use lighter fluid to start your coals. There are cheap alternatives to lighter fluid that are safer for you and better for the environment. However, if you must use lighter fluid, wear the proper personal protective equipment. Goggles will help protect your eyes, and a long-sleeved, nonflammable shirt can shield your arms. Most importantly, always have respect for fire. Complacency is a sure-fire way to send your barbecue, and possibly more, up in flames.
Boost Your Barbeque IQ
Outdoor grilling can be fun, but there is a risk for serious injury and property damage for those who are careless. The following guidelines provided by the Home Safety Council can help you minimize your risk and ensure your grilling experiences are always fun, safe and successful.
• Stay by the grill and pay close attention the entire time food is cooking.
• Designate the grilling area a "No Play Zone" and keep kids and pets well away until grill equipment is completely cool.
• Before using, position your grill at least 10 feet away from other objects, including the house and any shrubs or bushes.
• Before using a gas grill, check the connection between the propane tank and fuel line to ensure it is working properly and not leaking.
• Never use a match to check for leaks. Instead, rub the hose line with a dishwashing liquid and water solution. If you see any bubbles or detect a leak, immediately turn off the gas and don't attempt to light the grill again until the leak is fixed.
When lighting a charcoal grill, do it right the first time. Choose pre-treated charcoal or carefully follow directions on the charcoal starter fluid can. Once you have lit the charcoal, never add more lighter fluid, as it may cause the can to explode. Use paper or kindling to help a slow-starting grill.