Fighting an Electric Vehicle Fire Is Still a New and Dangerous Concept

Screenshot: KPIX CBS SF Bay Area (YouTube)

 When an electric car catches fire, you can’t treat it like an internal combustion car. You need a lot more water and you can’t store the car afterwards in a similar manner, either. Dealing with EV fires is something that more and more firefighters are going to have to learn as the number of these cars on the road only increases.

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There are an estimated 760,000 electric and plug-in cars on U.S. roads, says the International Energy Agency, and only about a quarter of our firefighters have had some kind of EV training to know what to do in case of a fire, reports Bloomberg in a very excellent feature.

It calls for new standards that make identifying and troubleshooting EV fires easier for tow truck drivers, police and firefighters. The National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit organization, estimates that only “250,000 of the roughly 1.1 million firefighting personnel in the U.S. have undergone some form of EV training.”

To clarify, Bloomberg also makes sure to note that, “Electric vehicles are no more prone to accidents or fires than gasoline-powered cars—and might be less so, according to a 2017 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.” The issue reportedly lies in the fact that the technology is still very young and evolving and there really isn’t any agreement on safe system design.

The outlet reports that the NFPA has been training people and making reference manuals for about ten years, just as the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt were about to come out. Since then, it’s worked with automakers like General Motors to teach first responders about “what wires to avoid, where critical components are located under the hood, and how to control battery fires. The NFPA provides check sheets for most makes and models.”

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For example:

One of the first things first responders learn: Never cut an orange cable, a color reserved for wiring in excess of 60 volts. These can be found not just in the front or rear of a car but also running behind side panels. Most gasoline-powered vehicles have no orange cabling at all, since they use electrical charge powered by a standard 12-volt battery. A typical EV operates at closer to a potentially deadly 400 volts. The all-new Porsche Taycan, for example, will boast double that amount of electrical charge when it goes on sale later this year.

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Tesla also includes an entire first responders information page on its website, which instructs firefighters and other emergency crew on how to deal with a potential vehicle fire. It can take about 3,000 gallons of water, applied directly to the battery, to fully put out and cool off a battery fire, Tesla explains. If there isn’t any water on hand, use dry chemicals, carbon dioxide, foam or some other typical extinguishing agent until water can be accessed.

It also notes that battery first can take “up to 24 hours to extinguish.” And even after the first has been put out:

Always advise second responders that there is a risk of battery re-ignition. Due to potential re-ignition, a Model S that has been involved in a submersion, fire, or a collision that has compromised the high voltage battery should be stored in an open area at least 50 ft (15 m) from any exposure.

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We’ve seen this happen recently, when a Model S caught fire twice in one day.

Tesla has actually worked extremely closely with first responders to help teach them how to combat EV fires. The company has donated “hundreds of vehicles” to the local fire department in Fremont, California, where its factory is located, so that the Fremont Fire Department can provide classes for emergency personnel from around the U.S.

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With the number of EVs on the road only expected to grow, it’s vital that responders know how to deal with them. You can read the rest of Bloomberg’s story here.

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About the author

Kristen Lee

Writer at Jalopnik and consumer of many noodles.