Fighting EV fires overlooked as industry booms

Photo illustration of green-colored firefighters on a dark gray background putting out a fire on an electric vehicle
Clara Longo de Freitas/Getty Images

With hundreds of thousands of Americans driving battery-powered cars, only a fraction of U.S. firefighters are trained to put out electric vehicle (EV) fires, even as policymakers look to rapidly accelerate EV adoption in the coming decade. 

Even some of those firefighters who were trained in EV fires have struggled to put out severe blazes, which can take hours and thousands of gallons of water to extinguish. 

{mosads}It’s unclear whether EVs are more likely to catch fire than gasoline-powered cars. But when their lithium-ion batteries do burst into flames, they pose a much greater challenge to firefighters. The threat doesn’t always end after the fire is put out, as tow truck drivers have learned. 

“Even though you might have put out the visible flame, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the electric chemical reaction that’s causing the batteries to heat up isn’t still going on,” said Michael Gorin, emerging issues program manager at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

“They can reignite minutes, hours, even days later,” he said.

NFPA instructs firefighters to shoot copious amounts of water at the vehicle’s red-hot batteries and use a thermal imaging camera to ensure that the battery pack’s temperature has decreased and remained low before loading the car onto a tow truck. 

The nonprofit group has been training firefighters to combat EV fires for more than a decade, but only about a quarter of fire departments — confined by limited time and small municipal budgets — have taken part.

President Biden aims to make half of all vehicles sold in the U.S. to be zero-emissions vehicles by 2030. His Build Back Better plan includes a hefty income tax credit to encourage consumers to purchase EVs, which are more efficient, more environmentally friendly and faster than comparable gasoline vehicle

Even without those incentives, sales of EVs have hit record levels this year after falling last year amid the pandemic slowdown. 

Yet gaps in training, along with insufficient guidance from EV manufacturers and regulators, pose significant risks to first and second responders, according to a January report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that examined four EV fires. 

The report found that emergency responders face the risk of potentially deadly electric shock, hazardous gases and unexpected explosions caused by the “stranded energy” that remains in batteries after they are damaged in a crash.

A disproportionate number of fire departments that are trained to put out EV fires are in California, which alone made up 42 percent of the nation’s EV sales through the end of last year, according to the Department of Energy. But even the most well-trained first responders have had trouble dealing with extreme EV infernos. 

The NTSB investigation details a 2017 EV fire in Lake Forest, Calif., that took 20,000 gallons of water to extinguish. Two law enforcement officers on the scene suffered minor injuries from smoke inhalation. 

In a separate incident in Mountain View, Calif., EV-trained firefighters spent more than five hours trying to neutralize scalding batteries in a severely damaged Tesla Model X. With the help of multiple Tesla engineers, they put out the fire and transported the car to an impound lot, where the batteries quickly reignited. Five days later, the car unexpectedly burst into flames again. 

{mossecondads}The incidents underscore the reality that all emergency responders, including police officers, firefighters and even tow truck drivers, face novel risks when dealing with severe EV crashes. 

“Ensuring the uniform education of the fire service and first and second responders like the towing and salvage operators is going to be really key to making sure that nobody gets hurt and that this isn’t an impediment to electric vehicle adoption moving forward,” Gorin said.

Experts are still grappling with the best ways to deal with EV fires. The NTSB noted that one method is to submerge the vehicle in a vat of water, but acknowledged it was likely impractical for most first responders. Federal standards that advise impound lots to keep damaged EVs 50 feet away from other cars will also be difficult to pull off as EVs become more popular. 

And the growth in EV sales hasn’t been without speed bumps for manufacturers as well. 

In August, General Motors announced it would recall all 140,000 Chevy Bolts sold in the U.S. after a handful of the vehicles unexpectedly caught fire. And Hyundai recalled 82,000 of its Kona EVs earlier this year after a small number of owners reported battery fires that weren’t caused by crashes.

Tags Electric vehicles Firefighters Front Lines Joe Biden

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