June 21, 2024

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Firefighters equip themselves with knowledge of new automotive technology

5 min read

One of the changes in the automotive landscape in recent years is the increasing prevalence and push to convert to Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs), Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEVs) and Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs).
While vehicles designed to move from electric power instead of an Internal Combustion Engine come with many benefits, there are new challenges as well, one of which being the large battery often holding 10s of kilowatts-hours made out of components like lithium metal that pose a unique fire hazard, especially for emergency responders who are having to learn how to deal with new dangerous situations.
On Dec. 10, several Swan Valley Fire Department (SVFD) firefighters along with firefighters from Benito, Minitonas, Birch River, Barrows, Winnipegosis and The Pas attended an Electric Vehicle (EV) extrication and fire suppression information session hosted by the Swan Valley Mutual Aid District.
“Kevin Patterson, from the Banff Fire Department, presented the most current information on how to extricate occupants safely and effectively from EVs, along with several extinguishing methods for EV battery fires,” said SVFD Captain Kurt Rewerts. “He also helped dispel many common misconceptions about working with EVs.
“As part of the presentation, Patterson presented both in class and utilized a cutaway Tesla Model X car, split down the middle, showing what a normal EV looks like on one side and the unique electrical components, safety systems and major potential risks of EVs on the other side.
“This hands-on presentation gave firefighters an excellent vantage point to view some of the additional reinforcements located in the A-posts that would be undetectable behind the vehicle’s interior trim. It also served as an excellent reminder to firefighters providing vehicle extrication to disable the power system and ‘peel and peek’ before cutting into a vehicle. There are many safety airbags discretely located in many spots within the vehicle, all of which pose a significant risk during extrication operations for both the vehicle occupants and first responders.”
Rewerts noted how it came as a surprise to himself and others that the battery packs in these vehicles are made of several thousand – between 7,100 and 8,500 – lithium-ion batteries not much larger than a household AA. The pack of batteries is located deep within the floor of the vehicle and surrounded with a highly reinforced frame and skid plate to prevent damage from normal daily usage.
“The issue for firefighters in the event of a battery fire comes from a motor vehicle collision or hitting the ditch filled with large stones that may potentially damage the cell pack,” said Rewerts. “Even if one of the battery cells becomes compromised, it may self-ignite and start a chain reaction within the battery cell pack. During the fire suppression portion of the presentation, it quickly became clear that a battery fire in an EV will be a major event, involving significant amounts of water and time on scene.”
The last 10 years has had a dramatic rise of EVs in North America. In 2021, roughly 86,000 were registered in Canada alone.
“There are many advances in tools and methods to assist in extrication and fire suppression involving EVs,” said Rewerts. “However, currently there is no one new tool or method that a department has to quickly extinguish a battery fire. The SVFD and surrounding fire departments are very capable in conducting extrication and fire suppression on all vehicles. This course was another incredible tool for the firefighters to use on scene.”
SVFD Fire Chief Darren Fedorchuk added that the member municipalities of the Town of Swan River and the Municipality of Swan Valley West have been very supportive of their local fire departments.
“The SVFD is a very well equipped and highly trained department, and we continue to be proactive in advancing our tools and skills to ensure we provide the most efficient and effective service to the Valley and to support our surrounding fire departments,” he said.
“EVs are new and require special considerations such as the location of the battery cell and requiring large amounts of water. The water supply on two pumper trucks currently may not be adequate to provide complete extinguishment, especially if the incident originates outside of Town limits (with no fire hydrant accessible). The SVFD does have supports in place from Mutual Aid and local water suppliers to assist in the event additional water is required. There may come a time when a water tanker truck may be required to assist with these specialized fires and other events where large amounts of water are needed.”
How can firefighters work with Electric Vehicles
The first issue firefighters have to do when arriving at a scene of a vehicle incident is determining whether a vehicle is gas/diesel, hybrid or electric, as many manufacturers use very similar chassis/body with just different internals.
“On the side of the road, there are only a few different ways to tell if you’re dealing with an EV and that is an electrical port on the front corner, whether or not there is a gas door, or unique decals,” said Rewerts.
Due to the battery pack being located on the underside of the vehicle, fire crews have limited access to get water to the cells to cool and extinguish, and using foam to cool and smother isn’t effective on lithium-ion batteries fires either.
“Even once the fire is out, fire crews will need to provide a fire watch for several hours after the incident to ensure no other batteries have been compromised and no re-ignition of fire,” said Rewerts.
“Typically, an EV fire burns at roughly 5,000F – or 2,760C – while a gasoline engine vehicle fire burns at 1,500F or 815C. There is also a much more highly toxic, carcinogenic smoke as a result of off-gassing from a battery cell.”
Rewerts added that the danger of a battery fire means that procedure of controlling the scene would be adjusted.
Often the ultimate solution to control an EV battery fire is to either let itself burn out if there are no other exposure risks, or constantly apply water for several hours. Either method comes with the risk of air pollution or water pollution as well.
Fire crews would also need to work with secondary responders such as tow trucks to ensure that batteries do no re-ignite after they are removed from the scene, stored securely and monitored.
“The big question for many firefighters from this course is ‘How can I cut up the car without electrocuting myself?’,” said Rewerts. “To date, no firefighter has been electrocuted while conducting extrication or fire suppression of an EV. Extrication of occupants is similar to gas engine vehicles, but emergency staff must be extra vigilant isolating the battery and drive system of an EV and ensure proper extrication practices are used.
“Manufacturers of EVs have added several safety features to allow emergency crews to quickly disable batteries and drive systems of their vehicles. This in turn allows first responders to quickly extricate occupants. Manufacturers are also providing First Responder Rescue sheets for EVs which can be found on their website or emergency responder apps.”
The SVFD has not yet dealt with an EV fire directly, but expect they will account for a very small percentage of the car fires in the Swan Valley.
“EV technology is advancing at a light speed pace and first responders have the daunting task of continually upgrading their education and skills to ensure up-to-date, safe, efficient and effective services are provided to the public and themselves,” Rewerts concluded.


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