Electric vehicles (EVs) and other appliances powered by lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries are a growing concern for fire departments, not only across the United States but across the world. Since 2015, I have been following these issues here in the U.S. as well as in Europe and the Middle East, and I’ve been fortunate to present key findings at fire service conferences.
While I am not a scientist or engineer, I am a technician, tactician and, above all, an advocate for firefighter safety. This is why I advocate so strongly for departments to develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) for these incidents.
While great organizations such as the UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute and the NFPA are taking the lead in research and training, it has been difficult for many departments to translate that research into a practical SOP for their department. And with nearly 30,000 fire departments across the country, it would be impossible to develop a universal SOP that aligned with the unique needs of career, volunteer, rural and urban departments alike.
Nonetheless, there are some key components to consider when developing an SOP focused on EVs and other appliances powered by (li-ion) batteries. Take the ideas here and work them into an SOP for your department or county, then train, train train, so you are ready for your next (or first) EV fire.
Lithium-ion batteries and EVs
Li-ion batteries power a growing number of products in our lives, from computer notebooks to cell phones to power tools. But one of the fastest growing uses for these batteries is in EVs – not just electric cars but also electric scooters, bikes, motorcycles, wheelchairs as well as delivery and long-haul trucks.
Because of the number of li-ion batteries concentrated in EVs, the issue of fire control and extinguishment is highly concerning. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Response Guide #147 describes lithium as containing flammable liquid electrolytes that can ignite at 302 degrees F, less than the ignition temperature for paper. Guide #125 further indicates that it generates hydrogen fluoride off-gas, which could be fatal. This means that firefighters need to wear positive pressure SCBA with full PPE, and that no responder should touch or walk through its debris field without these protections.
EVs can have several hundred to several thousand individual li-ion batteries, each individual battery similar in size to an AA battery. The batteries are compacted into bundles of approximately 100 batteries. The issue: If one or more are physically damaged in a vehicle accident, overcharged, or defective when manufactured, the batteries can go into thermal runaway – a condition where the batteries overheat, producing a similar reaction in the other batteries within its bundle, ultimately starting a fire that spreads to other bundles within the vehicle.
EVs have two separate electrical systems: the 600-volt system that powers the drive train of the EV and a more standard 12-volt system that services the dash board instruments, air bags (SRS), lights, navigation and sound systems. For firefighter safety, both systems need to be de-energized, if possible, following a crash that does not involve a fire.
There is no universal emblem that identifies a vehicle as electric. The identity plate might be on the rear near a trunk or hatch lid, the front driver’s side, or near the charging port that has a similar cover to that on the filling tank of a gasoline-powered vehicle. Hybrids, those that use li-ion batteries with a small gasoline engine, have a similar electric charging port.
Likewise, there is no universal location for the emergency disconnect for either the 600- or 12-volt systems. The best advice is to quickly find the driver or a passenger and confirm the vehicle is an EV and then look up that vehicle’s Emergency Response Guide, whether on your phone or by requesting the dispatcher locate the ERG online and relay the information to you.
When you are ready to develop a department SOP for EVs and other devices powered by li-ion batteries, consider including these directives:
- Wear full PPE and SCBA on all vehicle fires.
- Block traffic immediately – call for additional units to assist in blocking or add them automatically to any vehicle response on a highway.
- Require those not engaged in active firefighting to wear a high-visibility vest.
- Conduct an initial 360-degree size-up with a thermal imaging camera (TIC) to note any heat pattern or fire extension near the battery case – located either on the frame of the EV or on some models behind the back seat. Confirm the vehicle’s power source (i.e., EV, CNG, Propane, gasoline).
- Set up an incident command system with at least an officer in charge and safety officer as additional eyes on the fire and traffic are needed safety factors.
- Determine your tactical priorities: fire, extrication, victim care.
- Approach the EV at a 45-degree angle until the vehicle is chocked/cribbed.
- Stabilize the vehicle with chocks or cribbing to avoid it moving. (EVs don’t make much sound even when running.)
- Power down the EV from the information on that vehicle’s ERG. Remember there are both the 600- and 12-volt systems that need to be de-energized.
- Understand your fire attack options, as letting the vehicle burn is often the best option or you risk the batteries constantly re-igniting. Extinguishment with water involves anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000 gallons of water, so securing a hydrant or several water tenders and dump tanks is essential. However, consider the potential of water contamination to nearby lakes or streams.
- Consider an EV incident as not only a potential fire, extrication and victim care emergency, but also a hazmat response.
- Have sufficient personnel and air management refill equipment on hand for crew rotation, traffic blocking and rehabilitation.
- Share information with the towing company that this is an EV with the possibility of re-ignition and the need to be separated by at least 50 feet from any other vehicles or combustibles, such as buildings.
- Perform gross decon needs at the scene, with all PPE needs later thoroughly decontaminated either in a washer/extractor or per the manufacturer’s specifications before re-use.
- Consider having the PPE commercially cleaned and contact the vehicle’s insurance carrier to agree to pay this expense. Borrow or rent clean PPE from the PPE manufacturer or another department in the interim.
There are many devices, tactics and agents being marketed or advanced in the United States and Europe to handle EV incidents, some of which are expensive and/or inherently flawed. For example, one tactic is to immerse the vehicle in a container of salt water. However, as we saw after Hurricane Ian, the salt-water residue caused approximately 25 EVs, previously submerged in salt water by the storm, to ignite when they were moved weeks after the storm.
Before investing in any of these devices or tactics, wait for legitimate testing laboratories to confirm their legitimacy. In the meantime, check out Captain Patrick Durham’s article “Electric vehicle fires: Where the waiting game wins.”