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Fire departments prepare for electric car battery fires; can take 10 times more water to put out than gas engines

Parma Fire
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jun 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-23 06:54:38-04

PARMA, Ohio — New warnings from federal regulators have local fire departments rethinking their approach to electric car battery fires. The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) has trained about 250,000 first responders, but there are 1.2 million firefighters nationwide.

The lithium-ion batteries found in these cars burn differently than combustible engine fires. The fire chief for the Woodlands Fire Department, a suburb outside of Houston, called the batteries a "trick birthday candle."

"When you add electricity to the mix, it adds a different dynamic," said T.J. Martin with the Parma Fire Department. "Training in the fire service has always been a challenge because no two fires are the same, and any fire department across the country will tell you the same thing."

In an 80-page report, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wrote that a review of emergency response guidelines from 36 manufacturers found that all had ways to mitigate the risk of high-voltage shocks, including methods for disconnecting the battery. But none of the guides spoke to limiting the risk of energy stored in the batteries, such as procedures for minimizing reignition or instructions on where and how to spray water to cool the batteries, the agency said.

"We can't simply go light a lithium-ion battery on fire and try to extinguish it," Martin said.

That is why local departments turn to videos created by the NFPA to learn more about the issues with electric car battery fires. Test results showed more water is needed to put out a battery fire than a regular car fire might need. A First Responder's Guide from Tesla said 3,000 to 8,000 gallons of water needs to go directly on the battery.

In comparison, experts said approximately 300 gallons are needed for a combustion engine fire. Federal regulators warn the batteries can burn longer and could need a special fire extinguisher. A Class D extinguisher is used on combustible metals.

Martin said these extinguishers are "out of our budget. Way out of our budget."

He said it is out of the budget for most departments. The military has them "and I believe the airport may have them as well," he said.

One way to deal with damaged batteries is to pull them from the vehicle and soak them in a saltwater bath to discharge the energy, the NTSB wrote. But Martin said it is impractical for local departments to keep saltwater on hand.

Parma may not have the extinguisher, but the department says it is ready.

"Water will put out a lithium battery fire," Martin said. "We just have to alter our approach to that fire itself."

Right now, fewer than 1% of cars on the road are electric. Analysts predict electric cars will make up one-quarter of new car sales by 2035.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.