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Fire hazards from EV batteries pose new challenges for first responders

Aug 15, 2023


As the popularity of electric vehicles (EVs), e-bikes and scooters continues to increase, the potential fire hazards created by their rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have been posing new challenges for first responders. Fire departments across the country are grappling with the challenges of handling these battery-related fires, which can be more complex and resource-intensive to extinguish compared to conventional combustion engine fires.

“We’re at that critical point where the consumer-driven world we live in is pushing these vehicles out and the fire department is playing catch up,” said Lt. Tanner Morgan with the Grand Prairie Fire Department near Dallas, Texas.

One pressing concern is the amount of water required to quell a blaze sparked by a lithium-ion battery. Reports indicate that extinguishing a fire of this nature may necessitate over 10 times the volume of water typically needed for a regular engine fire. In some instances, the quantities involved can be staggering, with estimates suggesting that up to half the capacity of an average U.S. swimming pool could be required.

“The tactics that we’re using for internal combustion engine vehicles don’t really apply to the batteries these electric vehicles were extinguishing,” said Chris Soda, a veteran firefighter with the Chicago Fire Department who now offers classes and hands-on training for dealing with battery fires through his company Junk Yard Dog Extrication Training.  

Federal regulators have noted that fires ignited by these batteries tend to burn for longer durations and may demand specialized equipment for effective control. However, firefighting departments are grappling with the financial strain of incorporating these additional resources into their budgets.

Experts have said that a central part of the problem lies in unregulated aftermarket chargers. These products do not require safety certifications for sale and using them for prolonged charging can lead to overcharging, resulting in malfunctioning batteries that overheat and catch fire.

“It’s a chemical reaction where the heat from one cell of the battery ignites the next cell,” said Andrew Klock, senior manager of training and education at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). “If you think about it, it’s like a bunch of matchsticks and if you light one and they’re all touching each other, the next one will ignite.” 

In response to these concerns, lawmakers have initiated steps to address the issue. Legislation has been introduced in Congress aimed at establishing standardized safety guidelines for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Dubbed the Setting Consumer Standards for Lithium-Ion Batteries Act, if enacted it would set nationwide consumer guidelines to protect people and responders from fires caused by EV batteries. 

Automakers have also joined efforts to enhance safety precautions in response to these challenges. General Motors has taken the initiative to provide hands-on emergency response training for over 5,000 first and second responders over the past year. Additionally, other prominent automotive leaders are adopting the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which call for the improvement of emergency response guides with vehicle-specific information to combat EV battery fires.

“Electric vehicle design is different for various makes and models. For safe and effective vehicle extrication, rescue and fire suppression, responders need practical and accurate emergency response guidance specific to the unique features of each electric vehicle,” The United States Fire Administration said.

Given the diversity of alternative fuel vehicles and the varying locations of batteries within them, emergency response guides have become essential tools for firefighters. These guides have been compiled by the NFPA, with about 300 separate guides currently available to assist first responders. To facilitate accessibility, the Electric Vehicle Rescue App has been introduced, ensuring that the latest versions of these guides are easily obtainable for emergency personnel. Since its launch, the app has been downloaded over 65,000 times across North America.

“It’s critical that we provide all this information, as much information as possible, so that we are both protecting the safety of first responders but also the occupants of these vehicles while first responders are working around them,” said Phil Scarfi, a New York City firefighter who helped develop the app.

While EVs presently comprise only a small fraction of vehicles on the road, projections suggest their share could surge to 40% by 2050. This anticipated growth has prompted proactive measures from government agencies, politicians, and industry leaders to address the possible dangers posed by lithium-ion battery technologies.

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