Your top electric vehicles questions, answered

As the automotive industry revs its engines for EVs, questions remain for some fire service leaders


We all know the only constant in life is change – and change is definitely coming to our apparatus fleets. This will be a change not unlike the switch in the early 20th century from horses to automotive fire apparatus.

Electric vehicles (EV) are taking over the automotive industry at a rapid pace, and there are now EV options available in every vehicle category. Nearly 10% of worldwide vehicle sales last year had an electric plug (EV-Volumes).

The problem: There’s considerable confusion and misunderstanding about EVs, particularly their application in the fire service market. So, let’s address some top EV-focused questions. And download the one-page talking point PDF below to help you navigate conversations about EVs.

LAFD's newest EV. When considering whether an EV will work at your department, you need to look at how far and how long you operate your fleet vehicles. The EVs coming out this year and in the next few years have long ranges (200-400 miles), but you may find you only need to drive 100 miles or less on a single charge.
LAFD's newest EV. When considering whether an EV will work at your department, you need to look at how far and how long you operate your fleet vehicles. The EVs coming out this year and in the next few years have long ranges (200-400 miles), but you may find you only need to drive 100 miles or less on a single charge. (Photo/Rosenbauer)

How does an EV work?

An EV is not just a regular vehicle with a battery, but it is a normal way to power vehicles. EVs use electric motors to drive the wheels and turn the pump. Electric motors are very powerful, which is why they are used to move freight trains and ships. Electric motors are also very efficient, making them excellent as drive motors for a fire truck and the pump.

How far can EVs travel with a full charge?

When considering whether an EV will work at your department, you need to look at how far and how long you operate your fleet vehicles. The EVs coming out this year and in the next few years have long ranges (200-400 miles), but you may find you only need to drive 100 miles or less on a single charge. Your response district and mutual-aid responses will dictate to you how much range you need.

If you decide to start with an EV for a staff or command vehicle, you have options available today. One is the new Ford F-150 Lightning Pro, which has a 230-mile range, provides 120V and 240V power for use at incident scenes, all-wheel drive, lots of storage, and it is comparable in cost to an internal combustion engine (ICE) powered version at $39,900.

When traveling out of town, there are rapid charging stations along many highways and destination chargers in most cities, often at hotels.

Are EVs safe?

Native EV architecture places the battery pack at the frame level, lowering the center of gravity and reducing the possibility of tipping over. That same architecture also provides lots of space around personnel seating areas for crumple zones. This skateboard-style chassis eliminates the need for a doghouse in your cab, a transmission tunnel under your feet, and the need to carry a tank full of flammable or combustible liquids on board.

EVs are fire-safe as well. According to an insurance estimate based on NTSB data, EVs catch fire about 25 times per 100,000 vehicles, while ICE cars catch fire 1,530 times per 100,000 vehicles. This means EVs are 60 times less likely to catch fire than ICE vehicles.

In addition, EVs have regenerative braking, which provides built-in auxiliary braking for a large fire apparatus. This eliminates the need for an add-on exhaust brake or transmission retarder. It also enables one-pedal driving and, combined with the lack of a transmission, has the potential for a smoother ride in our trucks or in the back of our ambulances.

What are the benefits of EVs?

EVs have no emissions, meaning there’s no tailpipe, so you don’t need an exhaust capture system at your station. Diesel exhaust has been one of the major causes of cancer in the fire service, and we now realize cancer is killing many more of us than we thought.

This ICE vehicle exhaust is also one of the major causes of greenhouse gasses. The World Bank reported on this deadly combination in 2014: “Diesel engine exhaust has long been known to promote cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. A new understanding of one of the components of diesel exhaust shows it is also a powerful driver of climate change, with black carbon particles 3,200 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide in the near-term.”

Some additional advantages:

  • Despite their eco-friendly advantage, EVs offer lots of power. Electric motors give 100% of their torque the moment you press the accelerator. ICE vehicles have to rev their engines to get into their peak power range for a short time, and they require transmissions to operate at all speeds. EVs can use a single gear from zero to 130 mph, and a slow EV can accelerate from 0 to 60 in under 5 seconds.
  • EVs have better handling because the battery pack installed at the frame rail level lowers the center of gravity for the car. It also plants the vehicle because the battery pack is heavy and its mass does not change. The weight balance in an ICE vehicle changes as fuel is consumed, but an EV’s weight and mass simply do not move.
  • As noted, the skateboard chassis architecture provides for additional storage space. With the EV drivetrain positioned at the frame rails and below, the apparatus cab, cabinetry and water tank have more space to ride on the chassis. You also eliminate the need for a nose in front of the cab or a doghouse in it.
  • Fueling hazards with EVs are reduced, because the on-board charger will not flow power unless there is a complete circuit with no shorts or faults. Even though quickly recharging a large vehicle with a comparatively large battery pack will require high power, the mechanical and electronic controls will not allow power to flow without a steady, safe connection.
  • EVs are quiet, which means your pumping fire engine will be quiet enough for you to stand next to it and hold a conversation. You will also be able to sit in the cab without needing headsets to talk to each other.

How is an EV charged at a fire station?

EV apparatus in operation today use relatively small battery packs with 150-200 kWh and diesel engines to back up their electric drivetrains. As such, they are able to rely on relatively low power 125kW chargers using 300-amp 480-volt power.

Charging equipment located at Madison (Wisconsin) Fire Station 8.
Charging equipment located at Madison (Wisconsin) Fire Station 8. (Photo/Ted Bohn, Argonne National Laboratory)

The problem is we have not been using these trucks long enough to see the effect of relying on our electric grid, or backup generators to charge them. We also do not have enough electric use data to show how expensive it is to charge a fire engine during peak hours, and at peak rates. Commercial fleet operators have already experienced this problem. They avoid high costs and low power availability by charging when it is cheaper and between shifts. However, emergency service providers cannot wait to charge EVs overnight or between predetermined routes.

As soon as we start to install larger battery packs (300-500kWh), which are being planned and built today, relying on traditional electric power supply systems will be inadequate and unreliable. Modern electric fire apparatus will need a high-power charging infrastructure capable of at least 600kW. To get that much power, you will need an electric service capable of 2,500 amps at 240 volts, or 1,250 amps at 480 volts. Most stations are not wired for that, and adding 3-phase power to your building is expensive.

A dedicated charging infrastructure will ultimately be the key to incorporating EVs into fire department fleets, and standards are currently in development for megawatt charging systems (MCS). MCS are both connected to the grid and incorporate on-site power generation and energy storage systems. This combination of generation and storage is called a microgrid, and it ensures a fire station’s is able to operate even when the grid is down, making the response system and the station itself more resilient to disasters. In addition, microgrids help to avoid peak rates, and demand charges making them friendlier to your budget.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) details medium- and heavy-duty EV charging, and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is developing the MCS standard this year.

How does the cost of an EV compare to an ICE?

The initial cost of an EV is more expensive to than its ICE counterpart. However, up-front costs for EVs are dropping along with the price of batteries. Current supply chain issues in the automotive industry have affected EV prices as well as ICE cars, but battery costs continue to drop as cheaper materials (like iron) are being incorporated and increasing production volume lowers unit costs.

The “total cost of ownership” (TCO) of an EV is generally less over time. For example, it is expected that medium to heavy-duty trucks will reach parity with their ICE counterparts in less than 8 years, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Energy. Another recent study by Atlas Public Policy found that an electric SUV TCO is 15.6% less than its ICE counterpart, and an electric pickup truck costs 17% less in TCO over eight years.

One public safety example: The police chief in Bargersville, Indiana, is saving over $6,000 per cruiser per year. His break-even point is in less than two years, and he keeps adding more EVs to his fleet. Your savings will vary, but in nearly every use case, an EV is cheaper to own and operate than an ICE vehicle today.

As it pertains to fuel, fuel costs using electricity from the grid are anywhere between 10 to 40% of the cost of gas and diesel. Since electricity rates are somewhat fixed, and gas prices fluctuate seemingly every hour, exact comparisons are impossible, but fuel costs are certainly reduced with EVs.

What should fire service leaders consider in the decision-making process?

Here are some recommendations:

  • Evaluate your fleet to see if an EV would fit in your department’s operations. How far do you drive and how long do you typically operate at an incident?
  • Consider leasing or using fleet-as-a-service as a financial model to save your department money, and to make it easier to try out an EV.
  • If you are remodeling, replacing or building a new station, make it solar ready for future microgrid application. NREL has a solar ready guide for this.
  • Talk with your local utility about distributed energy resources and how you can develop them in concert with their distribution system planning.

Final thoughts

EVs are an option today, but they will be the only option in 10-15 years. Instead of viewing this as a threat, consider it as an opportunity. Embrace this change. After all, you don’t want to be stuck shoveling horse manure while everyone else is cruising their response areas in a quick, quiet and powerful EV.

Electric apparatus talking points: Download the PDF

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