There are over 1 million electric and plug-in cars on U.S. roads. The batteries used in these cars have special safety concerns for first responders if there is a car fire.
These cars can experience multiple classes of fires:
- Class A (tires, fabrics, plastics).
- Class B (fuel).
- Class C (lithium-ion batteries in hybrid and electric cars).
- Class D (magnesium, titanium, aluminum and lithium).
Electric vehicle fires can be thousands of degrees hot. Applying water or foam may cause a violent flare-up as the water molecules separate into explosive hydrogen and oxygen gases.
There are several common risks for first responders associated with electric vehicle fires:
- Electrical shock (up to 400 volts).
- Extremely high temperatures and thermal runaway.
- Toxic fumes.
- Lithium burns (respiratory and skin reactions).
- Toxic runoff.
- Reignition up to 24 hours after initial extinguishment.
Reduce the risk
Many companies are meeting first responders' need with exotic chemical agents that encapsulate the burning material. But what do those responders who don't have immediate access to 3,000 gallons of water or expensive chemical agents do in the meantime?
The following guidelines will help you to mitigate the risk when you encounter an electric vehicle fire:
- Park uphill and upwind.
- Establish an appropriate incident command structure.
- Identify the type of vehicle involved – standard vehicle, EV, hybrid electric vehicle, high fuel economy, etc.
- Use a thermal imaging camera to help with the 360 size-up.
- Establish tactical priorities (rescue, fire, extrication, victim care).
- Consider that this could be a combined fire, extrication and hazmat incident.
- Wear full personal protective equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus.
- Secure a large, continuous and sustainable water supply — one or more fire hydrants or multiple water tenders. Use a large volume of water such as master stream, 2 1/2-inch or multiple 1 3/4-inch fire lines to suppress and cool the fire and the battery.
- Treat all conductive surfaces as if they are energized until they are proven to be safe.
- Stabilize the vehicle.
- Power down, if possible.
- Have enough fire personnel and apparatus on scene for an extended operation to monitor the battery’s heat or possible reignition.
- 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, preferably an area 50 feet away from other vehicles, buildings or combustibles.
Training to assist you
Several organizations have developed training and response guides to assist first responders. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) produced an emergency field guide, NFPAs Alternative Fuel Vehicles Safety Training and the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium offers a full catalog of training opportunities. Electric vehicle manufacturers have also added emergency responder information to their websites and vehicle documentation.
New hot stick technology on the way
The U.S. Fire Administration partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratories to develop a hot stick that can detect the presence of hazardous Direct Current (DC) voltages. The patent on this prototype has been licensed and product testing is underway. We anticipate a new product will be announced to the market soon.
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: Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times