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EV fires: A global problem that demands a collaborative solution

Researchers around the world are independently working to solve the challenges firefighters face with electric vehicle fires, so why aren’t we sharing our findings?


A 2019 Chevy Bolt electric vehicle caught fire at a home in Cherokee County, Georgia, on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.

Photo/Cherokee County Fire & Emergency Services

The District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department (DCFEMS) and UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute (FSRI) recently cosponsored a symposium on the challenges posed by lLithium-ion batteries. The event brought together speakers from several agencies, including the FDNY, NTSD, IAFF and IAFC – to share updates on the hazards posed by these batteries and how they can better work together to identify potential solutions.

Despite the value of these conferences, we often focus our attention on research generated within our own country, mainly from the FSRI, NFPA and FDNY. However, lithium-ion battery fires are a worldwide fire service problem, with researchers around the globe tackling the issue.

Europe’s approach to the EV fire problem

My recent FireRescue1 article on developing standard operating procedures (SOP) for EV fires geared to individually fit the capabilities of each fire department caught the attention of Per Ola Malmquist, a Swedish researcher. He reached out to me regarding his work on EV battery fires, as well as research being conducted in other European countries, such as Finland and Germany. Malmquist is a fire protection engineer and a former battalion chief with the Helsingborg Fire Brigade. His research, in part, has been in conjunction with the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency.

While he would be the first to say his work on the topic is ongoing, there are promising developments related to strategies for attacking EV battery fires. As part of his research, Malmquist discovered the potential of tools and techniques to safely pierce an EV’s battery storage area and apply water directly into the compartment, simultaneously decreasing the chance of an electric shock or arcing to fire personnel.

View part of Malmquist’s research on EV battery fires in this video:

The problem with salt water

For a moment, let’s discuss water. In their current work to test EV battery compartment access, European researchers are using ordinary water, not the saltwater that we’ve seen in the Netherlands with the submersion of an EV in a large container of sea water. What has been discovered over time in Europe – and confirmed following Florida’s Hurricane Ian – is that saltwater, when it dries, leaves a residue of sodium (salt) in the battery case.

When it comes time to move the EV, such as when it’s being loaded onto a flatbed truck, that movement can re-energize the lithium-ion batteries, causing them to re-ignite. How is that possible? Because all EVs have a re-generative braking system that converts the mechanical energy of the braking system into electricity to continually recharge the lithium-ion batteries. So, as an EV moves, that system again becomes active and begins to energize the batteries which, in turn, can cause re-ignition of the battery packs. This phenomenon occurred in approximately 25 EVs and a dozen more golf carts that had been submerged by sea water in the wake of Hurricane Ian, according to JoAnne Rice, director of the Florida Division of State Fire Marshal.

Gaining EV battery compartment access

In our discussions, Malmquist also briefly described two European-designed nozzles – the Cobra and the Murer Lance – created to gain critical access to the battery compartment, which allows firefighters to cool the battery.

The Cobra: This nozzle is used to hydraulically drill into the battery case and then subsequently flow water at 65 gpm, as seen in the below video:

The Murer Lance: This nozzle is used to pierce downward through the frame of an EV to the battery compartment, demonstrated in the below video by members of a German fire brigade:

Some European companies are also working toward an EV battery fire solution. In 2010, Renault, a French-based automobile manufacturer, began a collaboration with the French fire service to design their electric vehicles with firefighter safety in mind. In conjunction with French firefighters, the company created what it calls the “Fireman Access.” This gives firefighters access to the EV’s battery case without the need to drill or pierce it. The company’s fleet of electric vehicles also comes equipped with a single circuit breaker to de-energize the vehicle for both high- and low-voltage systems.

The EV fire solution: collaborative research

Let me be clear: Considering the current models of electric vehicles available in the United States, I am not advocating to use these tactics. However, perhaps we should be looking to collaborate with other research facilities in the development of a worldwide standard for EVs, designed for the protection of firefighters everywhere.

This combined research is not the panacea for all lithium-ion battery fires, as each day we find new devices using this technology. But EVs, mobility devices and energy storage systems (ESS) remain some of the most difficult and, probably, the most prolific fire threats to both the public and us – the responding firefighters.

Lithium-ion batteries are a worldwide fire issue that demands a worldwide collaborative solution. Sharing our fire research is the best approach to finding answers for the safety of firefighters and the public, everywhere.

I hope that we can find the solutions within this collective research before EVs and ESS become even more prolific in our country and the world in the coming years.

Stay safe!

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.