Rurally Speaking: RVs, EVs, and Escapees

Carl Haddon asks rural departments about their preparedness for the influx of recreational and electric vehicles.

By Carl J. Haddon

This will be the first installment on a number of related subjects that have taken many (especially sportsmen and tourist) rural communities by storm, and I believe it has only just begun. Although this column is dedicated to “all things rural fire departments,” I believe that where we’ll go in this series of articles can apply to all kinds of different communities.

Recreational vehicles (RVs) come in all shapes and sizes. Many of them are towed by another vehicle (travel trailers and “5th wheels”), while others like motor homes and motor coaches are (typically) powered by gas or diesel engines.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are now becoming commonplace here in the United States, with at least two of the big American automakers each promising 20-30 new all electric vehicle models within the next couple of years.

“Escapees” is my personal term for those city dwellers who have decided to escape the madness of city living for quieter lifestyles in rural communities. With the advent of the “work from anywhere” model created as a result of the COVID pandemic, hordes of people have left—and are still leaving—the big cities and landing in small rural communities like my own here in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho.

So, What’s Different?

Air and international travel took a major hit during the pandemic. In general, air travel didn’t get much cheaper because of the pandemic, but it has become a much bigger hassle. Having flown internationally just a couple of weeks ago, I can tell you that the ONLY difference between first class (my wife and I got bumped up because of airline status) and anywhere else on the plane is simply a bigger seat; no cocktails, no meals, and masks certainly took most of the fun out of flying.

People wanting to get out pivoted and started buying RVs and motorized toys in droves. People have owned RVs, all-terrain vehicles, and side-by-sides forever, but never in the numbers that we’ve seen over the past 12 to 18 months. Many RV dealer associations have seen a 170-percent increase in sales over those from 2019. I’ve been looking to buy a new side-by-side since spring 2020, and there just aren’t any available!

So what? What does any of this have to do with rural fire department operations, apparatus, or equipment, you may ask? My initial answer must start in the form of a question that hit me right between the eyes last summer. What do RVs, EVs, and escapees have in common? Answer number one: They are all “flooding” into rural areas (temporarily and permanently) in numbers that our rural and, often, volunteer infrastructure is not typically designed or equipped to handle. Answer number two: There seems to be a lot that we, rural fire departments, don’t know about RVs, EVs, and escapees!

So, What Don’t We Know?

In upcoming editions of “Rurally Speaking,” I’ll take each of these topics and try to explain in much more detail the things that we don’t yet know about RVs, EVs, and escapees and how they can dramatically affect your rural department and its members. To avoid leaving you hanging, let’s take a general or gross look at just a few things in each category that we may not know, or may not know enough about. Please understand that, in general, the reason that we don’t know or don’t know enough is because there have been huge changes in the way that RVs and EVs are built today (as compared to a few years ago), and the differences in the materials used to build them are often different and present a whole new way of thinking about them from a firefighting, extrication, and rescue vantage point.

Let’s start with the escapees. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is with personal first-hand examples. We live in one of the most beautiful places in this country. We have the Salmon River of No Return that runs throughout the county and the two rural fire districts. Our landscape and the river attract thousands of visitors each year for hunting and fishing, but the main reason is for our world-renowned whitewater rafting.

Its commonplace for us to see (and, often, dread) license plates from all over the country. Simply, our dread comes from people’s unfamiliarity of driving conditions and the number of wildlife and big-game animal hazards that believe the highways belong to them. We have one major two-lane interstate highway that runs through the county, where 90 percent of that highway is bordered on one side by the Salmon River, with the other 10 percent by mountains that jut straight up from the edge of the highway. We respond to dozens of serious wrecks each year just from normal traffic; now, imagine adding hundreds and thousands of folks escaping from the city on our roads who don’t know that they are not supposed to drive around dusk and dawn, when animals cross the highway to and from the river for water; that don’t slow down at night; that aren’t used to looking for their headlights reflected in the eyes of big game (except moose, whose eyes don’t reflect light); and who aren’t accustomed to not having guardrails and highway lights. Add to all that the Bighorn sheep kicking rocks of all sizes down onto the highway—and consider that I haven’t even added weather challenges to the equation.

To add insult to injury, let’s throw in the RV component. Now, take a huge percentage of those same new people and put them behind the wheel of a new 10- to 20-ton motor coach that they aren’t used to driving very often (or at all) and put them on our highway. What about the folks who buy a brand-new one-ton pickup and haul a 35+-foot trailer on these same roads? What could go wrong? We aren’t an island, and many other rural areas and their fire departments have faced, are facing, or will face the same increase in the number and severity of crash-related calls. Do you have the staffing, apparatus, and equipment to handle this increase? We do not. Another caveat to all of this is the increase in the number of folks who are selling their homes, making these same RVs their permanent homes. How much do we know and don’t know about the new fire and rescue challenges created by these new “homes on wheels”?

I’ve written and taught extensively about new and EV vehicle rescue technology. What happens when you combine a huge influx of folks from the cities that drive EVs that aren’t used to our highways? Photo 1 shows what happens when one of these EVs hits a cow on the highway in the middle of the night. In the case of the incident in photo 1, nothing—until, of course, another EV slammed into the EV that hit the cow, causing them both to burst into flames!

1. Photo courtesy of author.

Is your rural department ready for two EVs burning uncontrollably in “thermal runaway”? That is, in addition to the Class D (combustible metal) burning lithium ion batteries, each of those burning cars has more than 350 pounds of Class D metal (typically magnesium) in their construction that is also burning also. How far is your 500; 1,000; or even 2,500 gallons of water contraindicated to fight Class D fires, which may cause violent explosions, going to stretch? How much does your department know about the hazards and logistical challenges associated with fighting EV fires as well as performing rescue operations on vehicles with huge amounts of ultra-high-strength steel and alloys?

Stay tuned as we break each of these elements down and, hopefully, help make you and your department more prepared for these challenges. Remember, it’s not about if they’re coming; it’s about when will they arrive in your community.

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.

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