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Jun
2021
20

Federal regulators warn of risks to firefighters from electrical vehicle fires

It’s the kind of blaze that veteran Chief Palmer Buck of The Woodlands Township Fire Department in suburban Houston compared to “a trick birthday candle.”

On April 17, when firefighters responded to a 911 call at around 9:30 p.m., they came upon a Tesla Model S that had crashed, killing two people, and was now on fire.

They extinguished it, but then a small flare shot out of the bottom of the charred hulk. Firefighters quickly put out those flames. Not long after, the car reignited for a third time.

“What the heck? How do we make this stop?’” Buck asked his team. They quickly consulted Tesla’s first responder guide and realized that it would take far more personnel and water than they could have imagined. Eight firefighters ultimately spent seven hours putting out the fire. They also used up 28,000 gallons of water — an amount the department normally uses in a month. That same volume of water serves an average American home for nearly two years.

The remains of a Tesla vehicle after it crashed in The Woodlands, Texas, on April 17, 2021.Scott J. Enlge / via Reuters

By comparison, a typical fire involving an internal combustion car can often be quickly put out with approximately 300 gallons of water, well within the capacity of a single fire engine.

As the popularity of electric vehicles grows, firefighters nationwide are realizing that they are not fully equipped to deal with them. So they have been banding together, largely informally, to share information to help one another out. In fact, Buck recently spoke on Zoom about the incident before a group of Colorado firefighters.

That’s because the way that electric vehicles are powered triggers longer-burning fires when they crash and get into serious accidents. Electric cars rely on a bank of lithium-ion batteries, similar to batteries found in a cellphone or computer. But unlike a small phone battery, the large batteries found in the Tesla Model X, for instance, contain enough energy to power an average American home for more than two days.

So when an electric vehicle gets in a high-speed accident and catches on fire, damaged energy cells cause temperatures to rise out of control, and the resulting blaze can require a significant amount of water to put out. Such vehicles, given their large electrical energy storage capacity, can be a considerable hazard, known as “stranded energy,” to first responders.

But training to put out these fires can’t come fast enough as more electric vehicles arrive on U.S. roads every day. According to IHS Insight, an industry analysis firm, the number of registered electric vehicles reached a record market share in the United States of 1.8 percent and is forecast to double to 3.5 percent by the end of this year. But IHS notes that 1 in 10 cars are expected to be electric by 2025.

Still, most firefighters across America have not been adequately trained in the key differences between putting fires out