Emergency response to electric vehicle traction battery fires - what we know & what we need to learn
Electric vehicle traction battery fires are rare, but present new risks & challenges for emergency responders.
We’ve long known that transport accounts for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, so it’s pleasing & astonishing to see the transition to electrified driving now moving faster than a Tesla S Plaid with a tailwind. While the roll out of vehicles - with an increasingly lower carbon footprint from well to wheel – continues to accelerate & charging infrastructure appears in the places we live, play & work, the future of your daily drive is firmly electric.
However, the speed with which the sector is moving has left some behind, particularly the emergency responders responsible for managing the millions of vehicle incidents that occur globally every year. The firefighters, police, paramedics, rescue specialists, towing & transport operators in your neighbourhood have decades of knowledge & experience handling the risks associated with collisions, fires & fuel spills from internal combustion engine vehicles, typically managing to make safe a scene within a few hours.
Electric vehicles are different. Human nature (& our belligerent driving) being what it is means EVs will still be involved in collisions, but with the alternative risk potential for a lithium-ion battery fire & a spill of battery cells creating stranded energy. The global emergency response community are only just coming to grips with best practice methods for identifying, managing, suppressing & clearing road traffic incidents involving EVs.
How common are EV traction battery fires?
They’re ‘less likely’ to happen than internal combustion engine vehicles. At least, this is the answer that’s been doing the Twitter rounds for years, but we wanted to quantify the statement by creating a detailed & verified dataset of plug-in electric vehicle passenger lithium-ion traction battery fires.
Two years of ad hoc research was generously boosted by seed funding from the Australian Department of Defence to form a small team & create EV FireSafe, a free online knowledge hub for emergency responders that starts at the beginning (What is an EV?), steps through the risks (What is thermal runaway?) & ends at scene handover (Make safe & towing).
And we can confirm; EV traction battery fires are very rare. In fact, the chance of your plug-in passenger EV battery catching fire is around 0.0012%, a figure that is based our finding less than 200 verified traction battery fires in a global stock of 10 million EVs as of December 2020.
If EV fires are rare, why are emergency responders concerned?
There are three issues at play when EVs are involved in an emergency incident:
1. EV lithium-ion traction battery fires are difficult to extinguish & require more time, water, people & resources
2. EV incidents that don’t involve a traction battery still require careful management due to risk of electrocution & fire
3. Some (not all) EV & battery manufacturers have taken a ‘responder takes the risk’ attitude, with multiple fire agency reports of inadequate emergency response guidance upon a request for assistance from the manufacturer with a live incident
Australia is moving from 20,000 EVs on the road in 2020 to an anticipated 1.3 million in 2030, & from 10 million EVs globally in 2020 to a forecast 200 million in 2030. While smarter safety systems & emerging ‘fireproof’ battery technology may assist drivers avoid collisions & lithium-ion battery fires, the sheer scale of electrified transport means EV incidents will become a daily concern for emergency responders in the same way petrol & diesel vehicle incidents are now.
And the gaping knowledge gaps & lack of hands-on experience means there’s a zero level of comfort amongst both the Australian & global emergency responder communities we’ve spoken to.
How do emergency responders put out EV battery fires?
Education. We know the basics, but there’s a lot to learn from first hand experiences, vehicle & battery manufacturers, & testing EV technology from an emergency responder perspective.
Testing. As the market evolves, so too does private sector product development. Fire blankets, water lances, extinguishing agents, emergency plugs, DC detectors & fire hose nozzles show great promise but are largely untested at this early stage.
Knowledge sharing. If a fire brigade in Geelong, Australia, have experienced an EV battery fire, chances are successful learnings will apply to brigades globally. Collating latest best practice information to share with others is key to preparing responders for the electric vehicle transition.
The EV FireSafe team will continue to participate in education, testing & knowledge sharing by building on the foundational dataset of global EV traction battery fires & collaborating with fire agencies to test EV fires & products throughout 2022. Using that data, we'll assist with education around the risks & challenges to emergency responders.
How you can help
If you're an emergency responder or driver that's experienced an EV traction battery fire & can share the details for our database, we'd appreciate an email from you. You can also download our free information presentation pack with overview information for your emergency brigade or group.
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