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When EV batteries go up in flames, they present different challenges than car fires involving gasoline. Route Fifty spoke with an expert about the new risks and how firefighters can prepare.
The U.S. auto industry’s sudden shift toward producing more electric vehicles has far-reaching consequences for local governments, including fire departments.
Michael O’Brian, the chief of the Brighton Area Fire Authority in Michigan, explained that fires in electric vehicles can take crews far longer to handle than those in gas- or diesel-powered cars and trucks.
O’Brian, who is also the chair of the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ lithium-ion battery work group, said the changing technologies could also affect the kinds of equipment and staffing that fire departments require.
These changes are happening faster than many people predicted, he said, which means now is the time for communities and fire departments to start preparing.
Route Fifty spoke with O’Brian about what fire departments can expect from battery-powered vehicles. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How prepared are fire departments for the coming influx of electric vehicles?
Some of the fire service is well prepared, but I truly believe that for the most part, our fire service is behind in preparing our firefighters for responding to incidents involving electric vehicles. It depends on where you’re at in the country, but probably less than 10% of the U.S. fire service is well-prepared for a response.
So what’s the difference between responding to a fire in a gas-powered vehicle and an electric one?
Most accidents involving a regular vehicle or a vehicle fire – as long as it’s not in a structure – take about 30 minutes. It takes two to three firefighters and they’re done.
When you have an engine compartment fire on a gasoline-powered vehicle, you open the hood, put water on it and you go about your day. With an electric vehicle, we don’t have access to the cells that are on fire. It’s an enclosed package. So we’re not extinguishing fires anymore, we’re cooling them. We can’t stop that fire. It has its own oxygen. It creates its own heat. We’re cooling them to limit that fire from spreading.
But that incident where we have a thermal runaway is a minimum of one hour. If that battery pack is unable to be cooled, or if it continues to propagate from cell to cell, this could be a three-hour incident for us.
You can’t have firefighters in air packs for three hours. So it’s multiple crews. It’s now multiple rigs. We go from 500 gallons to extinguish a vehicle fire to in excess of 5,000 – anywhere between 3,000 and 10,000 gallons.
There’s an added layer of complexity. There’s an added layer of time. There’s an added layer of technicality. A lot of it is just changing the mindset and adopting a more defensive approach.
So you’re still using water to put out these fires?
There’s nothing else right now that’s commercially available. [Vehicle] manufacturers produce an emergency response guide, and in most cases, they say you can’t use foam. So foam’s off the table. Carbon dioxide or other materials just don’t provide the cooling that water does. So water is the answer.
When you say fire departments are underprepared for EVs, why is that?
The National Fire Protection Association and a lot of associations have been doing a lot of good work over the last couple of years to really prepare the fire service. But a couple years ago, we had a few manufacturers [of electric vehicles]. Now, it’s all manufacturers. As I travel the country, some people think the average consumer is not going to buy an electric vehicle.
If you’re in communities where you’re seeing battery powered vehicles going down the road, then you’ve adopted a philosophy that you need policies, procedures and training to get everybody ready.
I don’t think a lot of communities realize how many electric vehicles are now within their area. Regardless of manufacturer or propulsion type, we don’t have a lot of incidents with 2022 vehicles. When we look at vehicle fires, they’re typically in older vehicles.
From the IAFC’s standpoint, we’re really trying to prepare fire chiefs so they can have community led discussions and build partnerships, so people know there are changes that are going to take place. We need to educate our communities to let them know there is a changing paradigm of what [firefighters] can and can’t do.
It’s not that the fire department is not doing their job [when they let a vehicle burn itself out]. It’s limiting its environmental impact. It’s limiting the amount of resources we have to commit to an incident.
What about extricating people from electric vehicles? Do electric vehicles change how you do that?
In the last 15 to 20 years, our approach to vehicle extrication in general has changed, just due to the presence of airbag cylinders. When our crews use the “jaws of life” or hydraulic extrication tools, we’ve adopted a peel-and-peak approach before we go and cut a column. We want to peel off as much plastic as possible to make sure they’re not cutting into something they shouldn’t be.
That’s where it gets complicated with electric vehicles. Our staff cannot be cutting into high-voltage lines.
But there is more training on electric vehicle extrication than there is about electric vehicle firefighting. The fire service has a ton of apps, a ton of resources. Over the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of work on vehicle extrication and how to work around that battery pack.
On fire prevention, there have been several electric vehicle models recalled after fire-related incidents. Some parking facilities won’t even let people park some models. Will that become more common? Or will parking garages have to space vehicles farther apart?
No, but I do think more study needs to be done on what the impacts are if there is a fire event and what the impact is on our structures.
Take a parking deck. The question that needs to be raised is about the built-in fire protection, such as sprinklers: Is it adequate for the fire hazard that today’s car creates? We need more information on smoke removal. Now, we can put out a vehicle fire in 30 minutes or less. What happens when that’s a three-hour event? There may not be a bigger impact on the structure, but there is definitely going to be a lot more smoke production. And we need to get that smoke out of that structure.
In the future, fire codes will require fire sprinklers where you work on or repair electric vehicles. There’s a lot of buildings in the United States where they work on vehicles right now that do not have fire sprinklers.
How will these changes in the fire service affect city budgets and resources?
There is no doubt the U.S. fire service is understaffed. With staffing [shortages] in hospitals, we’re seeing our ambulance crews getting stretched. They’re having longer times in hospitals waiting to get beds. That has created a pretty significant impact on our resources.
Anytime we go from incidents of 30 minutes up to three or four hours with possibly subsequent [hospital] visits is a huge demand on our fire service.
If I have a fire on a freeway today, there are no hydrants there. So we would send one truck to extinguish the fire and another rig to protect its workers – two crews. In the future, if that’s an EV fire, and I choose to apply water as part of a cooling strategy, and I need to get 8,000 gallons, that’s eight trips for a 1,000-gallon truck. But really, it’s more, because they have to get off the freeway, they have to fill the truck and they have to come back. So it’s probably four apparatuses working on that incident for three hours.
What happens when the fire department’s own vehicles become electric?
Let’s take the fire truck out of this for right now. In my fire department, I own about 12 gas- or diesel-powered civilian vehicles for inspectors, for our chief officers and for our on-duty supervisors. How do I electrify those vehicles and utilize them in emergency services?
I think in a suburban environment, we’re going to be OK. But let’s think about what just happened [in Florida when Hurricane Ian struck]. There were plenty of battalion chiefs riding around in a super-duty style vehicle in saltwater, trying to get to people, to help them in emergencies. When that’s a battery-powered vehicle, we can’t do that anymore.
Think about the impacts during wildland fires. Out west, they’re shutting down power grids. How do I come up to support those [firefighters] and move them around.
The manufacturers of ambulances are having an extreme shortage right now. We cannot buy an ambulance in much under 18 months, mostly because of chassis production. Somewhere down the road, those are going to become electric. Ambulances are utilized at very high rates. In some places, they’re running 60% to 70% of the time. How do you keep a solid state of charge on a vehicle that’s always moving, always running? They’re going to have to flip-flop vehicles. Well, now you’ve just doubled my cost for a fleet to provide EMS service.
You mentioned saltwater during Hurricane Ian. We saw that many electric vehicles that were submerged in the storm surge started on fire days after the storm, because the salt got in the batteries. What can we learn from that?
In Hurricane Sandy [in 2012], we learned that saltwater was bad for electric vehicles. Every hurricane has a parking lot filled with vehicles that were submerged with storm surge. There needs to be more study done by the [National Transportation Safety Board] and other federal agencies to support communities on this, because when you have a hurricane, your response crews are already taxed. We further compound it with these vehicles catching on fire.
If we have a submerged vehicle, we don’t want people to charge it. We don’t want towers to remove it without the right guidance, because if they do it wrong, it can create a fire event. It’s the same with a golf cart or a scooter.
So part of the messaging to our hurricane areas is, if you have a personal mobility device or personal electronics that uses a lithium ion battery, and it got submerged, how you dispose of it is important to us, because we don’t want that secondary event.
Probably over the next couple months, after Florida has kind of settled down, I think we're going to learn a lot more.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.