What firefighters need to know about electric car batteries

Understanding how they are made and what happens when they fail will keep firefighters safer at electric-powered car fires


If you’ve traveled through any major airport in the past six months you’ve heard the boarding gate personnel give a warning to all passengers from the Federal Aviation Administration. It clearly indicates that no one can bring a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phone on the flight whether with them in the cabin or in checked luggage.

Most airlines also advise you not to bring anything with lithium-ion batteries, including any e-cigarette device, on your person or in checked bags.

The airlines themselves have had some negative experience with lithium-ion batteries used in the auxiliary power unit of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. On at least four occasions, these batteries suffered what is referred to as “thermal runaway,” in which the heat from a failing cell causes itself and surrounding cells to fail, thereby generating more heat. In some instances, the units experienced enough heat to catch nearby combustibles on fire causing smoke in the cargo space or in the passenger cabin.

This past December, the concern over items using lithium-ion batteries prompted the National Fire Protection Association to issue a tip sheet entitled “Lithium-ion Battery Safety for Consumers” on the use of such items as hoverboards, children’s scooters, remote-control gadgetry, laptops, toys, smart phones, e-cigarettes and even the 10-year batteries in smoke alarms.

The tip sheet cautioned that lithium-ion batteries store a large amount of energy in a very small space, are designed for specific uses, and like any other manufactured item can be subject to defects that cause the batteries to overheat, catch fire or explode.

NFPA warned to cease using the item if a consumer noticed a strange odor, change in color, excessive heat, a change in the shape, leakage or odd noises coming from the consumer item.

Car batteries

The issue of lithium-ion batteries is not new to the NFPA. Almost five years ago, it began to look at the issue of lithium-ion batteries in electric cars. This research included a series of tests on vehicles with lithium-ion batteries. One of their conclusions was clearly stated in the following excerpt from that report.

“In each of the six full-scale burn tests, firefighters at the test site found that they needed to flow large amounts of water on the batteries, because fire kept flaring up even after it appeared to be extinguished. In one test, a battery fire reignited 22 hours after it was thought to be extinguished.

“‘Everything looked normal,’” recalled Andrew Blum, a researcher at the firm Exponent, which conducted the tests. ‘When we looked at the battery through a thermal imager, everything was back to ambient temperatures; the fire was extinguished as we would define it. But there was something going on internally in the module, and we just couldn’t tell.’ In two of the tests, firefighters ran out of air and had to switch tanks because of the length of time it took to fully extinguish the battery, according to Blum.”

While more and more products are being manufactured with lithium-ion batteries, their use in electric cars and other vehicles may currently be of the most concern to the fire service. Late last year, I analyzed a crash and double fatality in Indianapolis of a Tesla S P85 and the issues Indianapolis firefighters found upon arrival.

As late as Jan. 6, another Tesla S P85 crashed, this time in Australia along their major Pacific Highway. While this crash was not a fatal, the Australian news media reported that it “closed the highway in both directions as emergency crews worked to pick up thousands of AA batteries … the front battery pack rupturing, spilling the batteries across both lanes.”

This media report caused me some grave concern for the Australian firefighters at the scene since they must have noted that the individual 18650A Tesla battery cells were larger with a wider cylindrical diameter than ordinary AA batteries.

Hopefully these firefighters realized something was different and took their time to research the Tesla Emergency Response Guide that included safe handling and disposal of these battery cells. The media report was sketchy at best, and did not shed any additional information on those details.

Understanding lithium-ion

Since my first article, I have discussed some of these issues with Celina J. Mikolajczak, Tesla Motors’ senior manager for cell quality and materials engineering. Mikolajczak also took part in the earlier NFPA research and helped author the Phase I Report, "Lithium-Ion Batteries Hazard and Use Assessment" that was designed to help assess the flammability of these batteries in storage facilities and how they could be controlled by automatic sprinklers with regard to the NFPA 13: Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems.

Mikolajczak said that lithium-ion is a lithium-salt-based solution and not lithium metal per se. Specifically, the Tesla batteries are battery cells that are separately encased and have an ethyl-glycol (anti-freeze) coolant that independently cools each cell. The cooling system is designed so that, under normal operating conditions, if one cell would go into thermal runaway, it would not begin a chain of thermal reactions from one cell to another.

The takeaway from the experts, and from the experience of the Indianapolis Fire Department, have prompted me to suggest some guidelines for firefighter safety not only for vehicles with lithium-ion batteries, but with any fire in an alternative-fueled vehicle.

  • Wear full PPE and SCBA.
  • Identify the type of vehicle involved — standard vehicle, EV, HEV, HF, etc.
  • Use a thermal imaging camera to help with the 360 size-up.
  • Establish an appropriate incident command structure.
  • Establish tactical priorities (fire, extrication, victim care).
  • Stabilize the vehicle.
  • Power down, if possible.
  • Secure a large, continuous and sustainable water supply — one or more fire hydrants or multiple water tenders.
  • Use a large volume of water such as master stream, 2 ½-inch or multiple 1 ¾-inch fire lines to suppress and cool the fire and the battery.
  • Consider that this could be a combined fire, extrication and hazmat incident.
  • Have sufficient fire personnel and apparatus on scene for an extended operation to monitor the battery’s heat or possible re-ignition.
  • When turning the vehicle over to a wrecker or towing company, brief their personnel on the hazards.
  • If possible, follow the wrecker to the storage area, and place the battery-powered vehicle in a space away from other vehicles, buildings or combustibles.

Several training guides are available on line including the Tesla website or NFPA’s several online training programs. Other alternative fuel programs are available here.

2016 Models S Emergency Responders Guide

About the author

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School's Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master's degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers — USA Branch. Chief Rielage can be reached at Robert.Rielage@FireRescue1.com.

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