Some say reports of cell phones starting gasoline fires are just an urban myth. They may be right.
Firefighters originally blamed a May 2004 gas pump fire in New Paltz, N.Y., on a cell phone -- the first such case.
However, after talking to witnesses, Patrick Koch, New Paltz's assistant fire chief, ruled out the cell phone as a possible cause but said, "It is unknown what started the fire."
Koch said it is believed that if a cell phone were to ignite a fire it would only occur when the cell phone is answered. The man at the pump, Mathew Erhorn, originally said the flash of fire occurred when he answered his phone.
However, witnesses came forward later and said Erhorn had been on the phone prior to the accident, Koch said.
The fire was immediately suffocated by the station's emergency fire suppression system and Erhorn suffered only minor burns.
At the time, Koch said left little doubt the cell phone was to blame.
"I'm positive a cell phone can ignite. That's why motorists are told 'don't use their cell phones when they're pumping gas.' Really, it's deadly," he said then.
"If they can't start a fire, why are there 'do not use cell phone' signs on the pump?" he said. "No one could explain it to me then and no one can explain it to me now," Koch told ConsumerAffairs.com,
In another much-noted May 2004 fire, three oil well workers in Gregg County, Texas, were seriously injured when flames surrounded them soon after a cell phone rang. The accident occurred after one of the workers went to answer the phone which was resting on the tailgate of a truck.
Gregg County fire marshal, Chad Walls, said he hasn't ruled out the cell phone because he has no idea what ignited the fumes.
"It could have been the static shock created when he touched the truck," Walls said.
"MythBusters," a Discovery Channel show, recently broadcast an episode on whether a cell phone could ignite a fire at the gas pump. The show, like Koch, found it unlikely.
"While there has never been a confirmed incident of a refueling fire caused by using a cell phone during refueling, it's best to give your full attention to the fueling process and minimize distractions like cell phones can cause," said Prentiss Searles, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute.
Koch did say that under "million to one" conditions, a cell phone could ignite a fire. "You have to create the scene just right. You have to have the right humidity. You have to have the right temperature. You have to have the right air pressure."
Koch doesn't see the cell phone as large a threat as static electricity.
Koch and other fire officials suggest that before touching the handle of a pump, consumers should discharge themselves on a piece of metal such as the car door or handle. He also warned that in fall through spring people carry more static because of climates and sweaters and other winter clothing.