Lithium-ion battery fires from electric cars, bikes and scooters are on the rise. Are firefighters ready?
The rechargeable batteries that power common items like e-bikes, scooters and electric cars can pose a dangerous new threat to firefighters. They burn hotter and longer — and many fire departments may be unprepared to tackle them.
In June,and two others seriously injured after a lithium-ion battery malfunctioned and sparked a fire in a Fire officials say the blaze quickly spread to apartments above the shop.
It’s not an isolated incident. Fires caused by rechargeable batteries, including, have been increasing steadily in large cities like New York and San Francisco. Since at least 2019, fire departments in the two cities say they’ve responded to at least 669 incidents combined.
Last year, there were more than 200 fires blamed on lithium-ion batteries in New York City. Since 2019 the city recorded 326 injuries related to these types of fires, while San Francisco recorded 7 in the same time period.
These fires can also cause significant property damage. In 2022, most of New York’s rechargeable battery-related fires caused structural damage. In San Francisco, about a third caused structural damage.
Experts say much of the problem stems from unregulated aftermarket chargers that are not required to be certified. In some cases, products left plugged in have overcharged causing batteries to malfunction, overheat and combust.
In response to the deadly fire started in an e-bike store in New York, the New York city council passed several bills to strengthen fire safety. The bills would restrict sale, lease, or rental of powered mobility devices and storage batteries that fail to meet safety standards set by Underwriters Laboratories.
Nationally, Setting Consumer Standards for Lithium-Ion Batteries Act, which would set standards for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries and set nationwide consumer guidelines to protect people and responders from fires caused by the batteries.introduced the
Lithium-ion battery packs are made up of a group of cells inside a battery compartment and contain a flammable liquid electrolyte. The more electricity needed, the higher the number of cells — EV and plug-in hybrid vehicles, for example have about 1,000 times more cells than an e-bike.
With an increased number of cells and higher energy batteries comes a greater risk during failure.
Specific numbers on EV fires are challenging to pin down. The National Fire Incident Reporting System, or NFIRS, used by fire departments, hasn’t historically separated gasoline car fires from those involving electrified vehicles. Right now, EV fires are still considered rare events, since they only make up about 1-2% of vehicles on the road.
Experts warn those numbers will likely increase as more lithium-ion powered vehicles hit the road. Last year nearly three and a half million electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles were registered in the U.S. — that’s about six times more than in 2016.
The U.S. Fire Administration, which is involved in training, research and data, is leading an effort to develop and launch a new data platform called National Emergency Response Information System, or NERIS. U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell said the new system will collect data in real time to help increase understanding of these fires.
“We need these lessons. We need the evidence back to the data. We need the data to inform policy, to inform regulation,” she said. The NERIS system will be operational in 2024.
Part of the challenge for firefighters is that these batteries can be unpredictable. If there is a charging failure, a puncture, or an impact from a crash, the batteries can ignite and lead to a phenomenon known as “thermal runaway.”
“It’s a chemical reaction where the heat from one cell of the battery ignites the next cell,” said Andrew Klock, senior manager of training and education at the National Fire Protection Association. “If you think about it, it’s like a bunch of matchsticks and if you light one and they’re all touching each other, the next one will ignite.”
In 2017, a 2016 Tesla model X SUV crashed into an open garage and ignited in Orange County, California. It took two hours for firefighters to extinguish the structural fire. But after they pulled the SUV out into the driveway, the battery reignited, then stabilized for about 45 minutes before it reignited again. Two hours later, after it was loaded onto a tow truck, it began smoking and reignited a third time. It took nearly five hours to completely extinguish the EV fire.
According to Tesla’s emergency response guide for the Model X: “Battery fires can take up to 24 hours to fully cool. … There must be no fire, smoke, audible popping/hissing, or heating present in the high voltage battery for at least 45 minutes before the vehicle can be released to second responders (such as law enforcement, vehicle transporters, etc.).” It goes on to say, “Always advise second responders that there is a risk of battery re-ignition.”
In a 2018 incident in Mountain View, California, authorities say a Tesla crash resulted in the vehicle’s battery going into thermal runaway. It reignited five days after it was thought to have been under control, injuring two firefighters and a tow truck driver. A week after the incident, Tesla posted on its blog that “Tesla battery packs are designed so that in the rare circumstance a fire occurs, it spreads slowly so that occupants have plenty of time to get out of the car.”
Another danger to first responders comes when thermal runaway doesn’t result in fire but instead causes a phenomenon known as “off-gassing.”
“When you have a thermal runaway in a battery, it gets extremely hot. It breaks down the chemicals inside and can make flammable gases,” said Adam Barowy, a research engineer at the UL Fire Safety Research Institute. “If that gas doesn’t ignite, as soon as it comes out of the battery, it can build up and start to develop an explosion hazard.”
That happened in Erie, Colorado, in April. Mountain View Fire Rescue crews responding to reports of a fire at a home found smoke in the secondary garage. It was emanating from a Jeep Wrangler 4XE hybrid vehicle.
“They didn’t see any flames. The problem with this was a buildup of combustible gases inside the garage and started coming into the house,” said Doug Saba, deputy fire marshal for Mountain View Fire Rescue. “That happens a lot with batteries, lithium-ion batteries that fail. And they fail because there’s either a manufacturer defect or something damages those batteries causing that. It could be an electrical short.”
When they put water on it, an explosion blew the garage door off its tracks 30 feet into the yard. Police body camera video shows the door just missing the battalion chief’s head as he stood outside.
“Luckily, he had his protective gear on, and the garage door actually nicked his helmet,” said Saba.
Three firefighters inside the garage were knocked off their feet; none was seriously injured.
“So, there’s kind of a two-pronged hazard. There’s fire hazard, which can be sort of rapidly developing in the case of e-bikes. And there’s this potential for an explosion hazard,” said Barowy.
“Every three minutes there’s a gasoline engine car fire, you don’t hear about those on the news. But if an electric vehicle catches fire today, just one or two in this country, you’ll hear about it on the news,” said Klock. “So, they’re not more dangerous than gasoline cars. They’re just different. And if you’re trained properly, you know you’re going to be able to handle that much better.”
Fragmented fire preparedness
Research and data about fire preparedness when it comes to lithium-ion batteries is just beginning to be collected. CBS News surveyed two dozen of the 50 largest fire departments nationwide on the topic and found only about 38% have had hands-on training to fight lithium-ion battery fires.
One survey respondent wrote:
“I don’t believe we can say we have all that we need to support these incidents. Most of the equipment used for these incidents is not fully vetted and we are still working to identify the best options. Standard operating procedures need to be vetted and finalized and these procedures need to have consistencies that are shared between fire agencies.”
Another survey respondent wrote:
“This is an ever-evolving topic and as new technology comes out, we need to continue to stay up on current trends, this is a work in progress.
“The prevalence and occurrence of hybrid/electric car and lithium-ion battery fires is increasing. … Lithium-ion battery fires present a severe hazard to the public and to our responders and we want to ensure that our personnel are prepared to mitigate these incidents.”
“I would hope that approximately half of the firefighters in this country have had some exposure to training. But I would also expect that maybe half have not. There are approximately 1.2 million firefighters in the United States. So, there are many that need training,” said Andrew Klock of the NFPA.
CBS News’ survey also points to a lack of consensus on the best way to fight these fires — and there’s no specific agency leading the charge to identify best practices and required training.
“As compared to Europe, for example, the United States is very fragmented in our approach,” said Thomas Barth, investigator and biomechanics engineer at the National Transportation Safety Board.
In 2020 the NTSB released a report on the safety risks to emergency responders from lithium-ion battery fires and electric vehicles. At the time they made recommendations for fire response and more research into the stranded energy in these batteries that can lead to thermal runaway.
“As the deployment of this technology out to wider reaches of the of the field across the United States, there’s still more education and still more work to do,” said Barth.
Moore-Merrell, agrees that emerging technology and innovation have been outpacing the ability of safety organizations and regulatory agencies to keep up.
While she says regulation is needed, she also believes more research must first be done.
“I think we need to understand and have more information, more data. Certainly, more outcome research on the incidents that do occur before we can inform policy and regulation,” she said. “Right now, we’re not even sure what to regulate because we don’t know enough about the incidents that are happening.”
Filling the gap in training
Even though data is just being collected and research is ongoing, there is a lot of training available — everything from online modules to classroom education and practical field training is being offered by numerous government and private agencies.
“This is an opportunity for automakers and General Motors certainly to go out and demonstrate to the world and the communities around the world our commitment to putting safe product out there,” said Joe McLaine, staff engineer with General Motors Global Product Safety and Systems Division.
Over the past year, McLaine says GM has conducted hands-on EV emergency response training in more than 25 different locations, reaching over 5,000 first and second responders.
“We gave the training in four-hour sessions, and we had them take a training assessment. And when they did that assessment, they got a certificate of completion,” said McLaine.
Chris Soda, a veteran firefighter with the Chicago Fire Department, started his own company to offer training. Junk Yard Dog Extrication Training offers classes and hands-on training to fire departments, police departments and towing companies to deal with battery fires.
“The tactics that we’re using for internal combustion engine vehicles don’t really apply to the batteries these electric vehicles were extinguishing,” said Soda. “We don’t have the science behind it to tell us exactly what’s going on and the best way to combat these fires. It’s kind of a patchwork of ideas of kind of what works best.”
Last month Soda and his team held a training day in Camden, Michigan, with about 83 firefighters from multiple departments in attendance.
Izzy Maguffee, a firefighter and EMT from neighboring Byron Township, Michigan, took part in the training. She says that while she was given cursory instruction on lithium-ion battery responses as a cadet, this was the first time she had ever received hands-on training.
“A lot of what they’re teaching is just basically knowledge on the different battery positions — for us to be able to put it out. Where to apply water, and just the best way for us to put them out since they’re such a different kind of animal than our normal fires are,” she said.
Along with classroom activity, the group learned three different methods for tilting vehicles to gain access to the battery for monitoring and cooling as well as new extrication methods.
“There’s no silver bullet to this. And there’s not one fix for every single electric vehicle incident. So, we’re trying to give them a big toolbox so that they can rely on that, and they can sometimes mix and match techniques,” said Soda.
The course also covers rapid extrication techniques for electric vehicles focusing on the potential mechanical damage that batteries can sustain after a collision and how to rapidly extricate entrapped victims.
An app for that
One recommendation the NTSB makes is for all car manufacturers to standardize their emergency response guides, known as ERGs, for first responders. Because all alternative fuel vehicles are not the same, the batteries can be in different places.
“We made a recommendation to every one of them to model their emergency response guide on the ISO [International Organization for Standardization] standard,” said Thomas Barth of the NTSB. “It doesn’t dictate the content of the information. But it but it has these standardized formats and colors and layout so that emergency responders, [if] they have fire, they know right where to go.”
Firefighters rely on these manuals from each individual manufacturer to figure out what to do when they respond to an electric vehicle fire. There are currently about 300 separate emergency response guides.
The NFPA maintains a collection of these guides on its website. Pocket-sized books are also available.
“There’s no centralized distribution of those response guides, whereas in Europe it’s a government requirement that they have a phone app. Whereas in the United States that doesn’t exist. It’s more of an ad hoc collection,” said Barth.
It’s why Phil Scarfi, a New York City firefighter, and his colleague Scott Saal, who has nearly 40 years of experience in the automotive collision industry, decided there should be an app for that here in the U.S.
“It’s called the Electric Vehicle Rescue app and it has all of the emergency rescue guides, the ERGs, all in one place,” said Saal.
Scarfi says that he found first responders were having trouble figuring out where the battery on individual makes and models of electric and hybrid vehicles were located — important details when every second counts.
“They were popping up in all different locations, not the traditional under the front hood. Sometimes they were in the rear, under the passenger seat, all over the place. So it was taking a lot of first responders a little bit of time to figure out where those battery locations were. So that was the main basis of the app — provide an application where people can reference those battery locations,” said Scarfi.
So far the app has been downloaded more than 65,000 times and is being used in nearly every state in the U.S. and in Canada. Through their nonprofit, Scarfi and Saal work with the manufacturers to ensure the latest ERGs are pushed to the app to create an easily accessible and updated source of information for first responders.
“It’s critical that we provide all this information, as much information as possible, so that we are both protecting the safety of first responders but also the occupants of these vehicles while first responders are working around them,” said Scarfi.
GM is also working on a new concept app for ERGs. This app would give first responders a 3D schematic of the vehicle before they arrive on scene.
“A push of information — 3D rendering of the vehicle with overlays of that vehicle to show the structure of the high strength steel where the airbags or the supplemental restraints are, where the low voltage or high voltage cut points may be in that vehicle, as well as overlaid information from OnStar or other telematics information that could be pushed directly to first responders,” said McLaine. “We want to see this be mandated.”
Tesla, one of the auto manufacturers that use lithium-ion batteries, did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but one survey respondent said that the company had provided some training to their department.
When asked about EV battery fires, Ford wrote in a statement: “We have a long history of working closely with emergency workers and first responders on auto safety issues and that continues as we enter the EV era. We’re further evaluating opportunities to help educate on this important topic. Emergency response guides (which follow NTSB’s recommendation to utilize the ISO format) are available for all our Ford electric vehicles.”
In the meantime, firefighters like Chris Soda say they can’t wait for all the research and best practices to be established.
“The cars are out here today, and we don’t have time to wait on that technology to kind of catch up to ensure that we can operate safely.”
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