By Matt Posky on October 9, 2020
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been outstanding when it some to destroying whatever illusions we’ve built up around ourselves in terms of automotive security. When the Department of Transportation was claiming advanced driving aids would eventually lead us to a future where car accidents were a thing of the past, the NTSB was there running crash investigations suggesting that those systems were not only error-prone but likely encouraging motorists to become more distracted behind the wheel.
Now its back to burst another bubble. According to data compiled from over a dozen reports, the NTSB believes fire departments are woefully unprepared to tackle hybrid and electric vehicles. The group estimated that roughly half of all American departments lacked any protocols for tackling such fires. Even among those who did, the criteria provided was often quite lax and might be insufficient for suppressing those famously troublesome lithium-ion battery fires.
With EV sales relatively low in the United States and battery fires seemingly no more common than their gasoline equivalent, that’s not much of an issue right now. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been pretty clear that EV fires require special protocols. Breaking out the hoses and aiming the nozzle at a burning Tesla might seem prudent. But grazing a punctured battery pack with water when the flames are really starting to pick up can cause secondary explosions that will ruin your day.
“Electric vehicle fires can exceed 5,000 F. Applying water or foam may cause a violent flare-up as the water molecules separate into explosive hydrogen and oxygen gases,” FEMA explained before diving into the additional risks of electrical shock, toxic fumes, toxic runoff, and re-ignition.
Tesla has likewise sponsored training that suggests getting a steady stream of water on the battery pack is the best thing for an EV fire. While FEMA and the NTSB agree, they’ve decided that the amount of water used needs to exceed what would have been effective on a normal vehicle fire and should start with having a comprehensive understanding of how electric automobiles are structured. Understanding the nuances of a battery fire also helps the response team avoid electrifying themselves during rescue operations or reigniting the blaze when towing the wreckage away.
According to Bloomberg, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Volunteer Fire Council to survey 32 departments in 2018 to assess the nation’s readiness. Roughly 65 percent of departments said awareness of EVs, training for those types of fires — in addition to a lack of funding — were all obstacles they needed to overcome.
The NTSB began its investigation after a series of crashes in which batteries on EVs, including several cases involving Tesla Inc. vehicles, burst into flames after crashes.
After a March 23, 2018, accident on a California freeway, a Tesla Model X caught fire twice within 24 hours and again six days later.
The NTSB has also documented instances in which firefighters didn’t use the preferred method to fight a battery fire: copious amounts of water to cool overheating power packs and tamp down flames.
The most aggressive fires have involved lithium-based batteries, which can self-ignite and are difficult to extinguish, such as those installed on Teslas.
A regulatory framework has been suggested, especially now that the NTSB believes national preparedness is lacking. But the details have to be ironed out and fitted for departmental training regiments as new tools and tactics are developed. FEMA’s more-generic protocols will have to suffice until then, along with the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) emergency field guide for dealing with alternative energy vehicles.