Texas FFs rethink training after deadly Tesla crash

The Austin Fire Department is planning future training on electric car fires after the high-profile crash in their state

Laura Morales and Katie Hall
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — In the wake of a high-profile Tesla crash that killed two in a Houston suburb, the Austin Fire Department is planning a future electric car-centric training that will prepare its firefighters for these types of vehicle fires.

The training will help Austin firefighters decide, "based on the hazards the system presents to us, how are we going to change our tactics" to fight electric car fires, Austin Fire Battalion Chief Matt Holmes said.

Austin firefighters plan to increase training on electric car fires following the high-profile fatal crash of a Tesla near Houston this week.
Austin firefighters plan to increase training on electric car fires following the high-profile fatal crash of a Tesla near Houston this week. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Two people died Saturday in the Woodlands after their Tesla hit a tree and burst into flames, according to a Harris County constable.

One person was in the passenger seat and another was in the back of the vehicle, but no one was behind the wheel, Constable Mark Herman said. However, the vehicle was not equipped with autopilot, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said. Tesla's autopilot requires drivers keep their hands on the wheel when the feature is engaged.

Notably, firefighters had to remain at the scene to keep cooling the battery — which kept reigniting — with tens of thousands of gallons of water for hours, long after they'd extinguished the blaze, Woodlands fire officials said.

The Tesla fire was an example of how “we need to keep up with technology,” said Woodlands Fire Chief Palmer Buck, who became chief in 2019 after a 26-year career with the Austin Fire Department.

Holmes hopes to educate Austin firefighters on the differences in car fires when it comes to battery-powered ones versus gasoline-powered ones. An Austin fire engineer will likely host a training in June, he said.

Such trainings will need to be more common in the future, Holmes said, not just because electric vehicle sales are increasing, but because Tesla selected Del Valle last year as the site for its next vehicle factory. Tesla plans to start rolling out vehicles in Travis County as early as this year.

"The plan is to reach out to (Tesla), not only because we'll be responding to things that may happen at their plant but also to learn about updates to their vehicles and how that pertains to us as first responders," Holmes said.

Putting out electric vehicle fires requires more water and more observation time, Holmes said.

"As we've seen, these vehicles can catch fire an hour later or up to 24 hours later," he said. "So that makes it a little bit more dangerous for us."

For this reason, firefighters will also need to educate the tow companies and car shops they work with to treat electric cars with more care after a vehicle fire, Holmes said.

Tesla did not respond to an emailed question about whether the company plans to train Austin-area first responders about how to address any future emergencies. The company has an open position for a senior fire protection engineer who would be responsible for developing fire protection reports on new production lines for its gigafactory in Travis County, according to Tesla's online job posting.

The National Transportation Safety Board reported last year that half of U.S. fire departments are not prepared to deal with electric vehicle fires. About 30% of departments said they don't have any specific training for their firefighters to deal with hybrid or electric vehicles, and half said they have no post-crash protocols in place for these types of cars.

The board also reported early this year that electric vehicle fires pose safety risks to first responders. Guidelines from manufacturers have been inadequate, said federal officials, who called on companies to write vehicle-specific response guides for fighting battery fires.

Austin firefighters have been trained on electric car crashes in the past, but the training has primarily focused on where firefighters should and shouldn't cut when they're extricating people after a crash, rather than extinguishing car fires, Holmes said.

"I think we're still trying to figure this stuff out," he said. "The technology is here. So we just need to figure out ways to approach these types of energy sources."


(c)2021 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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