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Resource roundup: Electric vehicles and energy storage systems

What firefighters need to know about the hazards associated with EV and ESS fires


The NFPA estimates that worldwide, there are 3.1 million electric vehicles in operation today, with a projection 130 million by 2030.

KTVU via AP, File

The January/February2020 edition of the NFPA Journal devotes 12 pages to a discussion of the firefighting hazards associated with fires in electric vehicles (EV) and energy storage systems (ESS). The articles outline both the problems faced by firefighters with these newer concepts and the groups, including the Society of Automotive Engineers, the Fire Protection Research Foundation and the NFPA, which are researching long-term solutions.

The issue is one of growing importance for first responders – but it’s also one with ever-evolving hazards and response recommendations.

Here, we’ll catalog existing resources, including the most recent NFPA information and my previous series on this topic, which outlines the potential hazards of EVs and ESS and the tactics employed both in the United States and Europe to help mitigate these hazards and attempt to make these scenes safer for you, as responding firefighter/paramedics.

Knowledge recap: Teslas, batteries, ESS and more

What piqued my interest in the topic of EVs was a 2016 single-car crash of a Tesla in downtown Indianapolis. The crash claimed the lives of the two occupants and presented both an extremely difficult fire to control and a corresponding hazmat incident from the individual battery cells that were scattered over a large area of the crash site. Following a discussion with the Indianapolis Fire Department’s (IFD) Training Division, a brief set of guidelines was published in this initial article, “How to fight a burning Tesla.”

My follow-up article, “What firefighters need to know about electric car batteries,” addressed other similar incidents involving EVs, not only in the United States but also in Europe and Australia. It included a discussion with Tesla’s leading engineer developing their battery technology, as well as NFPA’s training videos that help familiarize both firefighter/paramedics and police officers to the hazards of both EVs and hybrids that use lithium-ion batteries.

The third article in the series, “Beware of the thermal runaway danger posed by lithium batteries,” talked about the growing trend in the use of lithium batteries from those in our cell phones or tablets that we use daily to the toys we buy for our children. Many of these toys and devices have resulted in fires. The key factors here include issues that have developed over the quality control in the manufacturing of these batteries, issues that have developed in overheating (runaway) of these batteries, and the issue of storing and transporting these devices for groups such as the airline industry.

The most recent article, “Evolving technology: Residential energy storage systems,” centered on the growing use of ESS, both commercial and residential as well as the potential hazard to firefighters by having residential ESS in newer homes. These hazards include the storage of a vast amount of energy from alternative sources, such as wind and solar power, and how this energy might be accidentally discharged during a fire or other emergency, endangering citizens and firefighters alike.

NFPA report: Hazard complications and international solutions

This brings us to the recent NFPA Journal and the articles that add to the information available to firefighters on these hazards and the ongoing research that will add to our knowledge and refine our tactics in the near future.

Let’s start with the Journal’s cover story, which is based on another Tesla accident, this time in Mountain View, California. The article describes in detail the issues of both controlling the subsequent fire and the cleanup of the debris field consisting of hundreds of battery cells, including many undergoing thermal runaway. The fire required thousands of gallons of water to cool, shut down Highway 101 for seven hours, and reignited several times before and after the vehicle had been transferred to a storage lot in San Mateo. This accident mirrored the same issues that had occurred at the Indianapolis incident in 2016.

To further compound the problem, many tow truck drivers are now becoming skittish over the transfer of these EVs and their potential risks from the fire or police department to their towing company. Many drivers are refusing to go near these vehicles, fearing that the stored energy may be lethal if these batteries begin to overheat and then ”runaway.”

One solution has been developed in the Netherlands: The Brandweer, or fire department in the Netherlands, has developed special containers, similar to smaller roll-off trash containers, which are water-tight and contain a considerable amount of saltwater. The EV is then hoisted into the container and the car and its batteries are immersed in the saltwater solution so the container can be transported to an outdoor storage facility. There the car sits for several days until the chemical reaction between the batteries and the saltwater have rendered the batteries inert.

The issues surrounding ESS units has also taken the forefront with the NFPA with the development and publication of its new NFPA 855: Standard for the Installation of Stationary Energy Storage Systems. This standard recommends safe distances between ESS units, automatic protection systems, including sprinklers, and the ESS compatibility with the UL 9504A: Test Method for Evaluating Thermal Runaway Fire Propagation in Battery Energy Storage Systems.

EVs and ESS: A growing issue

The issues surrounding this growing use of lithium batteries for both EVs and ESS is not going away. The NFPA estimates that worldwide, there are 3.1 million EVs in operation today, with a projection 130 million by 2030, or roughly one in three vehicles sold by the end of this decade. They also project that global production of lithium batteries will grow by 800% in the next four years.

The fire service in the United States – and globally – needs to become more aware of these issues and potential hazards, pay attention to the growing research and body of knowledge concerning the hazards of these products, and evolve new tactics that correspond with both the safety of the public and firefighters ourselves in near future.

Stay safe!

Editor’s Note: What EV and ESS resources do you use or recommend for crews? Share in the comments below.

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. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.