As electric vehicle (EV) sales rise, fire departments and fire associations nationwide are looking for ways to prepare for EV battery fires.
Brian O’Connor, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) senior fire protection engineer, said firefighters and the general public need more education and better tools to counter EV fire risks.
He said studies show gas or diesel vehicles are more likely to catch fire, but EV fires are more difficult for first responders to manage.
AutoinsuranceEZ recently released a study that found EVs have 25.1 fires per 100,000 sales, with gas vehicles having 1,529.9 fires and hybrid vehicles having 3,474.5.
However, O’Connor noted that as EVs age, that data could change. He said older vehicles are more likely to have an issue, and as of now, few older EV vehicle models are on the streets. Also, EVs remain more expensive, he noted.
“They are more expensive, so people might treat them better,” O’Connor said.
He added that could change as EVs are resold and the cost of new EVs decreases.
The overall increase in EV sales means more firefighters will come in contact with EV battery fires, O’Connor said.
A recent Alliance for Automotive Innovation (Auto Innovators) report found 378,000 EVs were sold nationwide during Q3 2023, a 63% increase over Q3 2022.
It said EVs represented 10.1% of new light-duty vehicle sales. As of Q3, there are 111 EV model cars, utility vehicles, pickup trucks, and vans on the market, the report said.
O’Connor said some departments in rural areas don’t see a need for EV battery training yet. However, he expects the EV trend to grow, as will the need for firefighting resources in every part of the nation.
A dozen states — Colorado, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia — have adopted California’s Advanced Clean Cars II (ACC II) regulation. It requires 35% of auto sales to be zero-emission in 2026 and 100% by 2035. Some of the states have adopted the rule to be reached by 2032.
Last year, the Biden administration also released funding for EV infrastructure as he pushed for half of all vehicle sales to be electric by 2030.
Several automakers — including Volvo, Buick, and Bentley — have pledged to stop selling ICE vehicles by 2030. However, some other automakers, including General Motors (GM) and Ford, have scaled back on their EV goals, executives said during recent Q3 earnings calls.
“They [EVs] are coming everywhere,” O’Connor said. “Manufacturers promise to make X number of vehicles by a certain date. They are going to be everywhere, and they are getting cheaper. We will start seeing more used ones and more new ones.”
Typically, an EV battery takes longer to extinguish than a gas or diesel vehicle, O’Connor said. He said it also takes more effort from first responders to get water on the battery, often under the vehicle’s floor. The location can be different for each make and model.
A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article found some fire departments are letting EV fires burn out rather than waste the gallons of water needed to extinguish the fires. It noted a September Nissan Leaf fire in Franklin, Tennessee, that needed 45,000 gallons of water compared to a gas vehicle fire, which typically requires between 500 and 1,000 gallons.
O’Connor said just letting a fire burn out might work for some fire departments if the vehicle fire is on a rural road or away from other structures. He said it isn’t a reasonable plan for every scenario.
Fires that happen on highly used roadways or highly populated areas will need more urgency, he said. He gave examples of a fire near a school, in a personal garage, or a business, such as a collision repair shop.
“It is really tough for firefighters to arrive on scene and do nothing,” O’Connor said. “Ultimately, it is their job to protect the public from a fire. Waiting for it to burn itself out can’t be the answer. A majority of the time, that’s not going to be feasible.”
First responders need training and plans for what to do when they first arrive on-site at an EV fire or crash, he said. This includes first responders understanding there isn’t a singular layout for EV vehicles. Each make and model of an EV can vary. First responders need to look at OEM emergency service guides to know where to make cuts to an EV without damaging a battery or high-voltage cables.
OEM1Stop.com is an industry site, developed by the automakers, to provide access to vehicle repair and service information including Emergency Service Guides for first responders, written by OEMs. The guides include proper battery removal and storage guidance and information about what should happen once the vehicle is brought inside the repair facility.
The Energy Security Agency (ESA) also staffs a 24/7 Guidance Center for first responders, towing and recovery, recyclers, salvage yards, and the repair industry to answer questions about handling EV and hybrid vehicles properly.
The center can walk through risk assessments and help each party label the vehicles with color-coded stickers that warn others of potential risks.
First responder training also needs to focus on what can happen after an EV fire, O’Connor said. The work doesn’t stop once the fire is out. EV batteries could reignite minutes, hours, or even days after a fire, he said.
“I think training and education is really that first step and it is the step that will have the greatest impact,” O’Conner said.
NFPA offers numerous EV training online for first responders and the general public, including a training session for vehicle dealerships. The U.S. Department of Energy website also lists EV fire training resources.
Legislators in Montana discussed EV fire concerns after hearing a presentation from the state’s firefighter association last week, according to the Daily Montanan.
During the meeting, Ole Hedstrom, with the Montana State Firefighters Association, expressed the need for education and resources to help firefighters respond to EV fires.
Hedstrom mentioned specialized vehicle fire blankets that could smother a fire, the article said. He added that single-use blankets could cost $1,550 or $2,600 for multi-use blankets.
Other tools used to cool down batteries could cost $30,000, Hedstrom said.
“Sen. Theresa Manzella (R-Hamilton) said her concern was navigating what the obligation to safety is between manufacturers and the state,” the article said.
The article also said Sen. Mike Fox (D-Hays) mentioned the possibility of license plates being fitted to alert first responders of a vehicle being electric.
The WSJ article said some OEMS and their suppliers have started looking at ways to prevent EV fires. It said Audi, for example, recently filed a patent application for a battery that can extinguish its fire.
“Numerous companies are also developing solid-state batteries, thought to be safer than their liquid-based cousins,” the WSJ article said. “Victoria Hutchison, a senior research project manager with the NFPA Fire Protection Research Foundation, said those have been discussed for years but still aren’t being sold at scale.”
O’Connor said the NFPA foundation continues to research solutions to EV fires. He said first responder resources could be drained if a solution isn’t found in the near future.
Manpower to fight longer fires will pull firefighters away from other emergencies, he said. He said better battery designs by OEMs or better tools to fight the fires are needed.
“Something in that equation needs to change,” O’Connor said.
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