While driving to our fire headquarters recently, I was surprised to hear an early morning news item about a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report related to the fire service. The NTSB had released the results of a survey that found that 31% of fire departments in the United States don’t train on how to fight a fire in an electric vehicle (EV), and 50% indicated their department had no “special procedures” (i.e., standard operating guidelines) regarding EV fires.
Having written several articles on EV fires, starting with a fatal crash and fire in Indianapolis a few years ago (“Tesla on fire: How to extinguish an electric car fire”) and even more articles on lithium batteries and energy storage systems (ESS), both residential and commercial, I almost had to pull over and try to remember all I had just heard. (Note: Many of these articles are captured in this EV resource roundup.)
When I later found the original source, it confirmed the staggering statistics. Specifically, of the 32 fire departments surveyed, 10 reported no training on EV fires, and 16 had no guidelines related to such incidents.
While 32 fire departments certainly makes for a small sample, the results are significant enough to raise an alarm. So, what should we do to prepare?
Find training opportunities
For the better part of a decade, the NFPA has been offering online courses regarding all types of alternative-fuel vehicles – not just for fires, but also for the proper approach on extrication of victims, such as where to cut and where not to cut to avoid an electric shock to the rescuers or passengers. These courses can be done individually, as a company crew exercise or as a classroom presentation.
Make industry contacts
Next, look to the industries in your area, or those that service your area, that might be switching to alternative-fuel or electric vehicles. For example, my jurisdiction includes likely the largest trash and recycling company in Ohio. They are now using compressed natural gas (CNG) for their fleet because it is cleaner and more efficient than diesel. Further, it is reclaimed from their own landfill that generates enough natural gas to use in their vehicles and to sell the excess to the local energy company for distribution throughout the region.
Our fire department’s partnership with the company’s safety department gave us the opportunity to send crews to the facility to tour the natural gas distribution facilities. Company representatives held an outdoor class where they explained to our members the layout of their trucks, the protection provided for the CNG tanks, including the emergency shut-offs, and how these trucks would react with a fire in the truck’s trash hopper.
Learn from more experienced departments
Next, look to departments that have more experience working on EV or alternative-fuel fires. Following are some of the best practices I pulled together from fire department sites reports of working these types of incidents. Download and print copies of these best practices to keep with your car fire and extrication equipment.
- Wear full PPE and SCBA on all vehicle fires. Vehicles are built from many materials including steel, aluminum and composite resins. But they also contain plastics and synthetics that can off-gas cyanide and carcinogens as well as sulfuric acid, carbon nickel, copper, lithium or cobalt.
- Watch for unexpected hazards. Vehicle fires can also take an unexpected turn of events, whether a tire that explodes and destabilizes the vehicle, a ruptured fuel tank or the ignition of some exotic contents kept in the trunk. That’s why PPE and SCBA are always essential for firefighter safety.
- Identify the type of vehicle involved – standard vehicle, EV, HEV, HF, etc. While carefully approaching the vehicle, firefighters need to identify whether it uses an alternative fuel or an electrified battery pack. Most manufacturers place an emblem on the trunk and sides that indicates if it is powered by fuel other than gasoline; however, finding the emblem in the dark can be difficult.
- Use a thermal imaging camera to help with the 360 size-up. The recommendation is to use a TIC, if available, to scan any electric vehicle to see if the battery is overheating or burning.
- Establish an appropriate incident command structure. Have an incident commander, safety officer and accountability officer at minimum, with a 360-degree view of the scene to observe any critical changes in conditions.
- Establish tactical priorities (fire, extrication, victim care). Once identified, firefighters must size-up the emergency and establish priorities (rescue, extinguishment, extrication, patient care), immobilize the vehicle from any sudden movement, and start handling the emergency according to the listed priorities.
- Stabilize the vehicle. Safely stabilize the vehicle in the same manner as you would for an extrication (i.e., chocks, cribbing).
- Power down, if possible. Electric and hybrid vehicles can generate an electric shock that in some cases can unleash 600 or more volts to an unsuspecting firefighter.
- Secure a large, continuous and sustainable water supply. This is ideally one or more fire hydrants or multiple water tenders.
- Use a large volume of water. Use a master stream, 2½-inch or multiple 1¾-inch fire lines to suppress and cool the fire and the battery.
- Consider that this could be a combined fire, extrication and hazmat incident. During incidents such as the one in Indianapolis, when EVs involve a motor vehicle crash, the priorities can include not only the fire, but also victim extrications, and depending whether the EV batteries have fractured, there can be a considerable amount of hazardous material from the battery fragments and lithium ion cells that are strewn about the scene.
- Have sufficient fire personnel and apparatus on scene for an extended operation. Crews will be used to monitor the battery’s heat or possible re-ignition.
- Share information during transfer. When turning the vehicle over to a wrecker or towing company, brief their personnel on the hazards. If possible, follow the wrecker to the storage area, and place the battery-powered vehicle in a space away from other vehicles, buildings or combustibles
A growing problem
Many still associate EV fires with luxury vehicles, but the reality is there are many models of EVs on the road today – and the statistics back up this point.
In 2018, the NFPA reported over 212,500 vehicle fires in the United States, plus 560 civilian deaths and $1.9 billion in property loss. They also warned that with the switch to EVs and vehicles using alternative fuels, more and more will not be gasoline or diesel-powered vehicles.
Further, the NHTSA recently launched an investigation over complaints alleging fires in the Chevrolet Bolt EV. According to the complaints filed, the affected vehicles appeared to have fire damage concentrated in the EV battery compartment with penetration into the passenger area from under the rear seat. In one instance, an individual reported they received both burn and smoke inhalation from one of these fires.
A 2 a.m. dispatch for an auto accident with entrapment with a vehicle on fire is not the time to determine that the vehicle is electric and your standard approach to both the fire and the extrication won’t work. This creates a significant safety risk to the victims and our firefighters.
The time to prepare is now, the training is available. There should be no excuse.