Electric Vehicle Crashes Highlight Firefighters’ New Training Needs

The lithium-ion batteries that come standard in most electric vehicles pose a greater fire risk than traditional vehicle batteries—and that's created a training gap for many local fire departments. The National Fire Protection Association has been working on the issue for nearly a decade.

Electric vehicles are driving a lot of excitement at the moment, but they present a challenging problem during an accident: If their high-voltage batteries catch fire, they’re difficult to extinguish and can event reignite once the flames are put out.

In a recent incident, a Bloomberg report noted, engineers from Tesla, Inc.,  had to assist with the removal of one of its electric vehicles that had crashed on a California freeway. While the vehicle had a device designed to cut off the battery, the device was destroyed in the crash and the power cells caught fire. Even after the engineers had removed a quarter of the cells, the car ignited three more times in a six-day period.

That crash took place in Silicon Valley, on Tesla’s home turf. But Teslas and other electric vehicles remain rare enough that firefighters may not know how to handle such incidents.

“We have a ways to go in educating firefighters, especially in areas of the country that they really haven’t seen that many electric vehicles yet,” said Andrew Klock, manager of the National Fire Protection Association’s Emerging Technologies Program, in comments to KTVU.

Klock helped develop NFPA’s Alternative Fuel Vehicles (AFV) Safety Training program, launched in 2010, to prepare first and second responders for specific risks related to accidents involving electric vehicles, hybrids, and other cars that use alternative fuels. For example:

The impact of AFV crashes involves serious, potentially fatal, on-scene injuries to both emergency responders and vehicle occupants, as well as the possibility of property damage and post-incident injury or death, to investigators and tow and salvage personnel. Potential dangers may involve stranded energy, unexpected silent movement, toxic and flammable gases emanating from a damaged high voltage battery, thermal runaway, battery fires, and the possibility of electric shock through exposed high voltage wires and components, as well as charging station events.

Klock said only around 30 percent of fire departments have received training on how to handle fire incidents involving these vehicles.

In comments to Bloomberg, John Warner, president of the battery-industry group National Alliance for Advanced Technology Batteries International, said spreading these training tactics to more firefighters is key.

“It is a relatively new technology from what the firefighters have dealt with in the past,” Warner said. “I think there’s been some very good work done. Has it reached every fire department in the United States? I’m not sure it has.”

(jeremyiswild/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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