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Electric Cars Present Special Challenges for Fire Fighters

Monday, September 03, 2018By Richard Alexander

The increasing popularity of electric cars poses new issues and challenges for drivers, regulators and other parties handling these vehicles. This includes first responders. A slew of collisions involving semi-autonomous cars have given rise to unprecedented safety concerns for those responding to serious crashes involving these cars. Firefighters report that the batteries in electric cars can ignite fires that are difficult to contain. This has led to new guidelines about how to handle fire hazards in electric car accidents.

Tesla Model S Crash in Florida

On May 8, a Tesla Model S was involved in a fatal crash and exploded into flames. The National Transpiration Safety Board (NTSB) reported that firefighters used hundreds of gallons of water to extinguish the blaze. Once the fire was extinguished, the vehicle ignited two more times in separate locations. Experts maintain that electric cars are not more susceptible to igniting, but once batteries are enflamed, the ensuing fire is very different than a gasoline fire. Battery fires are therefore trickier to put out as many firefighters may not be familiar with how these fires behave. Experts say battery powered car fires are almost always unpredictable, leading to new predicaments for firefighters.

Responding to Electric Car Fires

When responding to electric car fires, firefighters must use more water to reduce the temperature of the lithium ion cell that is on fire. Even so a fire may be burning inside a compartment that is protected and isn’t being suppressed by contact with water. To extinguish a battery fire, the temperature must be brought down far enough to stop the chemicals from continuing to burn. In contrast, car fires in conventional vehicles can be tempered with water and foam, and they are not prone to reigniting.

Training Firefighters to Respond to Electric Car Fires

Fire departments are being trained to respond specifically to electric car fires in a variety of ways. First, fire departments have been instructed to use thermal imaging to check batteries even after the fire appears to be extinguished. Fire departments have been advised to not place a car with a defective battery within 50 feet of a building or another car until the battery is fully disabled. Tesla has also provided first responders with an Emergency Response Guide which advises them that fires ignited by batteries can last up to 24 hours until they are fully extinguished. Experts reiterate that consumers should not avoid purchasing electric cars because of fire concerns. The risk of fire in electric cars is still fairly low and continued education will help firefighters learn how to respond effectively.

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