The State of Electric Vehicle Firefighting: 2023
Electric vehicle (EV) fires have become prominent news stories in recent years. Data on the likelihood of EV fires is still sparse, making it difficult to understand how likely it is that an EV will catch fire in an accident or while charging. Debates are ongoing as different groups study the risk of fire with an EV to establish best practices and determine the risks to firefighters like yourself.
What we do know is that when EVs catch fire, they burn hotter and faster than standard internal combustion engines. This makes it difficult for your crew to fight effectively, especially with limited data. Regardless, the EV isn’t going anywhere.
In the rest of this article, we are going to examine the popularity of electric vehicles, their likelihood of catching fire, the challenges of fighting an EV fire, and the current best practices.
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How Common are Electric Vehicles?
According to a report from the IEA, in 2021 there were 16.5 million electric vehicles on the road globally. Likewise, the EEI projects that there will be 26.4 million electric vehicles on the road in the United States alone by 2030. One Net Zero Emissions by 2050 scenario predicts that there could be over 300 million EVs in 2030!
How Often do EVs Catch Fire?
A study done by AutoinsuranceEZ examined data from the National Transportation Safety Board, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, and government recall data from recalls.gov on EV and gas-powered vehicle fires. Their research found that there were 25.1 EV fires per every 100,000 sales. For comparison, gas vehicles experience 1,529.9 fires per 100,000 sales. At a glance, it appears that EVs are less likely to catch fire than their internal combustion engine counterparts.
It is important to remember that this data comes from a single comparison and is limited due to the prominence of gas vehicles verse electric vehicles on the road. This Forbes article points out that the data set does not supply a fair assessment.
No matter what the data says, EVs are here to stay. So, let’s examine some of the challenges and best practices associated with fighting these types of fires.
Electric Vehicle Fire Challenges
An electric vehicle fire brings many challenges ranging from the fire itself to understanding the risk of a high-voltage power source. Let’s look at some of these risks:
Lithium-Ion Battery Fires
Electric vehicles have a large battery pack built from thousands of individual battery cells, most commonly the 18650-size battery. These cells sit close together and store the power needed to run the vehicle.
Most electric vehicle batteries are found on the underside of the vehicle. This placement helps evenly distribute weight, though some vehicles may have batteries in different locations. The NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) has downloadable Emergency Response Guides for alternative fuel vehicles that can help you and your crew find battery locations and other best practices for different vehicles.
High Voltage Wiring
To adequately carry electricity throughout the vehicle, EVs have high voltage wiring. The voltage present in an EV puts you and your crew at a higher risk as the voltage is higher than that of other vehicles. Electric vehicles currently use up to 650 volts dc while other vehicles run at 12/24 volts dc. Accidental contact with voltages above 110 volts dc can be fatal.
This wiring is now color-coded in orange to signify that it is live and high voltage. Some manufacturers are also installing safety switches that easily disconnect the battery from the wiring to assist emergency services personnel on scene.
Cooling the Battery
Cooling the battery storage compartment with water is the top priority during an electric vehicle fire. Unfortunately, it can be difficult. If you struggle with access to water, it may be more difficult since current best practices encourage you to use copious amounts of water.
Large volumes of water are necessary for cooling due to the risk of thermal runaway in lithium-ion batteries. This phenomenon is dangerous and often unpredictable. According to the UL Research Institute, thermal runaway is when a “lithium-ion cell enters an uncontrollable, self-heating state.” This thermal runaway can result in smoke, fire, extremely high temperatures, and the ejection of gas, particulates, or even shrapnel.
When you fight a smaller battery fire, like one on an e-bike or e-scooter, you may be able to fully submerge it in water. This effectively cools the entire battery. This is not recommended for electric vehicles, and for obvious reasons isn’t very practical. So, what other options do you have?
Piercing the battery compartment to apply water more directly may seem appropriate, but it is not recommended. Piercing the compartment will cause further damage and may contribute to or encourage thermal runaway.
Your other option is to get water to the underside of the vehicle. If the vehicle is still on all four wheels, this may be difficult due to low ground clearance on the vehicle. Your crew might need to utilize a handline or use a specialized tool for reaching under the vehicle from a distance. If the vehicle has tipped onto its side or roof, you should have easier access to the battery storage compartment and a portable monitor or handline can be used to apply water.
Electric Vehicle Fire Suppression Best Practices
Electric vehicle firefighting is a young field of study that is likely to see changes in best practices in the coming years. These are the best current practices for electric vehicle firefighting based on information found on FireRescue1 and the NFPA Quick Resource Guide. These are intended to be guidelines and should not replace training or ongoing education.
Don all PPE, including your SCBA. Smoke and fumes from the vehicle are toxic and can be hazardous to your health. Lithium-ion battery fires tend to take off quickly and burn extremely hot, making them dangerous for those not properly outfitted in PPE.
Identify the type of vehicle involved. Determine whether it is a standard vehicle, electric vehicle, hybrid electric vehicle, or other alternative fuel vehicle.
Immobilize the vehicle if possible. Hybrids and electric vehicles may not have engine noise. Silent movement or instant restart capabilities are possible.
Chock the wheels
Set the emergency brake
Place the vehicle in park
Disable the vehicle if possible.
Ensure the ignition is off and move any proximity keys at least 16 feet away.
Disconnect the 12-volt battery
Avoid cutting any orange high voltage, yellow medium voltage, or blue medium voltage cabling. Do not touch damaged or submerged high voltage or medium voltage cables or components.
Use a large volume of water to suppress and cool the fire and battery area of the car. Most electric vehicles store the battery underneath the vehicle. This may make access for suppression difficult.
High voltage battery fires may take much longer to suppress and extinguish when compared to more conventional fires.
Monitor the battery with a thermal imaging camera and be aware of reignition risk.
Monitor for increasing temperature spots
Watch for smoke, sparks, or bulging components
Listen for popping, hissing, or gurgling noises
If the vehicle is towed away, inform the tow driver of the risk of reignition. If possible, follow the tow truck to the storage area and have the vehicle stored separately from other vehicles, buildings, and combustibles.
Complications with Electric Vehicle Fires
As with any fire, many complications can arise when fighting an electric vehicle fire.
Victims and Entrapment
Your size up of the scene should determine any entrapment or victims involved and establish priorities for suppression and rescue.
Uncertainty of Battery Damage
In the event of an accident, a battery fire may not be an obvious issue. In the best case, the battery will not have been damaged and your crew can focus on any rescue and cleanup operations necessary. However, your crew should be aware of the battery and warning signs of damage or impending thermal runaway. These include smoke, sparks, gurgling, or hissing from the battery.
EV Still Attached to a Charger
If you encounter an electric vehicle fire that is attached to a charger, you must take this into consideration when you size up the scene. Best practices recommend shutting down power at the charging cabinet first, then continuing with immobilizing and disabling the vehicle if possible.
Parking Garages and Storage Facilities
Vehicles inside parking garages and storage facilities pose a large threat due to the proximity of other vehicles and the temperature that lithium-ion batteries can burn at. Protection of other vehicles and property, access, or structural integrity may become a concern.
Storage facilities that have multiple batteries in one area run the risk of a catastrophic fire event. Thermal damage from one vehicle fire can quickly encourage thermal runaway in adjacent vehicles, leading to an escalated situation.
Unique EV Situations
Electric vehicles have some unique considerations that you should be aware of.
EVs flooded with saltwater following a natural disaster or other flood are at elevated risk for battery fires. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, residual salt in the battery or battery components can form conductive pathways that can encourage a short circuit that self-heats the battery. This can result in a fire.
Battery fires due to saltwater floods were experienced after Hurricane Ian in Florida during September 2022. At least 12 EV fires were reported in the following weeks. Current National Highway Traffic Safety Administration guidance encourages identifying flooded EVs and moving them at least 50 feet from any structures, vehicles, or combustibles.
Battery Transportation Vehicles
With the popularity of e-bikes and e-scooters, there are vehicles on the road that transport replacement batteries in cities. These vehicles (often vans) may not be electric vehicles themselves but transport large quantities of lithium-ion batteries that pose the same risks to your crew.
Identification of these vehicles is vital if they are involved in an accident as any damaged battery pack could begin a thermal runaway chain reaction.
Electric vehicles present a unique set of challenges to your crew as you battle thermal runaway and other EV fire considerations. Toxic fumes, battery storage compartment access, high-voltage wiring, and water distribution and volume can often complicate the scene. Accident scenes with victims or entrapment may add further difficulty and confusion for your crew.
Because of these challenges, it is important to stay informed and follow manufacturer guidelines for emergency response personnel. Best practices for electric vehicle fires are likely to change in the coming years as more research is conducted and improved suppression systems join the market.
Want to download this guide and take it with you? Request your copy here!