Vehicle Rescue Meets Hazmat with a Twist
It seems to me that hardly a day goes by that we don’t see or hear something about electric vehicles and some of the challenges they present to us in the field.
It is important to note that although the challenges involved with electric and hybrid vehicle fires and extrications are very real, they are not (yet) as common as those found in fossil-fuel-powered vehicles involved in wrecks. This is simply because of the fact that there are still fewer electric and hybrid vehicles on the road (at least in the United States) than gas-, diesel-, and propane-powered vehicles.
Much has also been written and discussed about the firefighting challenges and issues surrounding lithium ion battery fires we are encountering with electric vehicles. If you are not aware of this topic and these issues, it really is time to do some research on the subject, as the American fire service is years behind many other parts of the world when it comes to challenges faced with electric vehicle and lithium ion battery fires.
Most of these new electric vehicles also pose new and exciting extrication challenges because these cars are made using the latest metal alloys and the newest construction techniques and platforms that dramatically change the way we need to look at approaching extrication and making space.
LITHIUM ION SCIENCE
Some of the latest science surrounding combustion of these new vehicle components has also created (and exacerbated) hazmat conditions and concerns. For example, we find that burning lithium-ion vehicle batteries require an average of 3,000 gallons of water for initial knockdown. Science shows that the runoff water from these firefights contains very high levels of carcinogens and environmentally harmful pollutants (flouride, chloride, and hydrochloric acid). Where does this 3,000-gallon runoff go when we’re finished fighting the initial fire? Are we next going to need to dam vehicle fire scenes because of these hazmat considerations? Is your department equipped, staffed, and trained for such changes during “routine car fire” responses?
One of the most recent firefighter health concerns regarding compromised lithium-ion batteries involves the toxicity of the smoke that they emit prior to, during, and after ignition. The “United States National Library of Medicine: Report on Toxicity of Lithium Ion Battery Fires” states, “The electrolyte in a lithium-ion battery is flammable and generally contains lithium hexafluorophosphate (LiPF6) or other Li-salts containing fluorine. In the event of overheating, the electrolyte will evaporate and eventually be vented out from the battery cells. The gases may or may not be ignited immediately. Lithium ion batteries release a number of toxic substances as well as, e.g., CO (an asphyxiant gas) and CO2 (induces anoxia) during heating and fire. At elevated temperature, the fluorine content of the electrolyte and, to some extent, other parts of the battery such as the polyvinylidene fluoride (PVdF) binder in the electrodes, may form gases such as hydrogen fluoride (HF), phosphorus pentafluoride (PF5) and phosphoryl fluoride (POF3).”
Suffice it to say, these are NOT products of combustion we want to be breathing. However, how can we apply this information to our vehicle fire and extrication calls to allow us to do our job while minimizing our exposure to this stuff?
AUTO FIRES AND EXTRICATIONS
We are used to doing extrications where we see and smell liquids such as hot antifreeze; oil; fuel; and other sights, sounds, and smells associated with the aftermath of a vehicle crash. Traditionally, we also decide on scene whether or not the scene and the condition of the patient call for “rapid extrication” or conventional extrication.
Before we get too far afield, let’s look at a very real scenario involving some of this new vehicle technology. You are toned out to a vehicle wreck with entrapment. On arrival, your size-up reveals this to be a high-end full electric vehicle that went sideways into a tree. You and your crew go to work in the same manner that you always have for vehicle rescues. As you’re working to free your patients, you hear a hissing sound that resembles an air leak from a large tractor tire. Suddenly, the passenger compartment of the car starts to fill with a heavy acrid smoke. What is your next call? Do you go on air and try to change tactics to enact a rapid extrication? Is there anything more you can or should do for your patients? Obviously, you remove anyone from the scene without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). How do you know when this smoke creates an explosive environment subject to ignition?
If you give this scenario some thought, you will see just how many new variables are added to the evolution of the aforementioned scene. Moreover, you begin to realize the potential depth of the situation that can easily change, or at least alter, everything from the amount and type of equipment, personnel, and apparatus needed to the rapid expansion of the scope of this type of “ordinary” response. I know many departments that could and would routinely handle a basic vehicle rescue with a single three-person crew. Now, we’re looking at the need for 3,000 gallons of water on hand; extrication gear; plenty of spare SCBA bottles; AND hazmat considerations such as dike tubes, absorbent pigs, disposal measures, and last but not least firefighter decon. It is important to note that the toxins in the smoke from a lithium-ion battery fire will contaminate your gear faster than most structure fires could even think to. Firefighters in parts of Europe and Asia are required to doff and bag all PPE on scene following one of these events. Unfortunately, I must admit that there is also talk coming from research in Sweden that suggests this smoke’s toxins can permeate our bunker gear down to our skin. THAT is not good news.
For the past number of years, we’ve had to learn how to deal with new metals and alloys in vehicle construction. We have to consider if a vehicle has “start/stop” technology so as to not get run over by the vehicle we’re working on. Now we’ve added lithium-ion battery fires and the accessibility problem of where these batteries are located in electric cars, more than 300 pounds of added combustible metals to new vehicles, and this wonderful new challenge of lithium-ion battery smoke. It is imperative that you do your homework and learn as much about these issues as you can. Don’t believe the self-promoting keyboard warrior hype. Find out and verify the details for yourself! This technology is NOT going away, and the American fire service is already behind the curve.
CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.