Cold Winter Weather Meets Electric Vehicle Fire Challenges

Not a day goes by that I don’t get at least a phone call or multiple emails regarding challenges with fighting electric vehicle fires.
It seems that not a day goes by that I don’t get at least a phone call or multiple emails regarding fire department challenges with fighting electric vehicle (EV) fires.

In a previous column, I discussed some of the challenges of these types of fires. As we roar headlong into winter, these EV fire challenges take on a whole new dynamic.

I teach on mitigating both rescue and fire challenges presented by new vehicle construction and electric/hybrid technology. In addition to the hot topic of lithium-ion car battery and electric vehicle fires, I also discuss the exponential increase in the use of Class D (combustible metals) material found in these new vehicles that makes the intensity of these fires something to behold.

Simply stated, lithium-ion batteries in thermal runaway are absolute monsters to extinguish. The “science” talks about these fires requiring a “minimum of 3,000 gallons of water to get an initial knockdown.” After sharing this “science” with my FDIC class, hands shot up from firefighters from Houston, Texas, and a couple from Alaska and California; they reported firsthand experience of these fires requiring 15,000-25,000 gallons of water for initial knockdown. Also know that the runoff water will be highly contaminated with lots of bad things that include hydrochloric acid. What does one do with 15,000-25,000 gallons of contaminated runoff water?

Now, for those of us who experience subfreezing and subzero temperatures during winter, the question becomes what do we do with 15,000-25,000 gallons of FROZEN, wickedly contaminated runoff water? If this applies to you and your department, are you ready, trained, and equipped for this eventuality? Let’s take a look at some of the logistical, apparatus, and equipment considerations for this type of call.

Logistics

What resources do you have (or not have) to be able to get 3,000 or 30,000 gallons of water to a car fire on the highway or freeway in the dead of winter? Very few, if any, places in the country have hydrants or fire department connections on highways or freeways. If your winter weather is anything like ours here in the northern Rockies, drafting for refill is out of the question because the source water will freeze over. How far would your shuttle tankers have to go for refill?

Remember that in addition to the thermal runaway-caused lithium-ion battery fires in electric vehicles, there is now an average of 350 pounds of class D (combustible metals such as magnesium, titanium, and zirconium) metals in the construction of today’s electric vehicles (compared to an average of 30 pounds just a few years ago). Lithium-ion batteries in thermal runaway are also considered to be a class D fire. All these elements on fire that I talk about act violently (think explosion) when they come in contact with water. This means that we probably should not attack these fires (aggressively advancing with an attack line until we can get in close proximity to the windows) like we have traditionally done in the past.

These fires are extremely hot and have multiple associated flash fires/explosions (one byproduct of combustion in these fires is hydrogen) that spew molten copper and aluminum into the air. These events typically mean more water from a farther distance, all with the goal of safely lowering the temperature to that which is below the autoignition temperature of the lithium-ion battery (roughly 300°F). These batteries will reignite continuously until the temperature is below that autoignition temperature.

Another consideration is that these fires are taking hours to extinguish. The Houston firefighters in my class reported it took four hours and more than 30,000 gallons of water to extinguish a double fatal electric vehicle fire last year.

If you take just these few considerations thus far and add subzero temperatures to the mix, you can start to see how the dynamics of one of these fires change again.

Apparatus and Equipment

What is your department’s threshold for a hazardous materials response? Do you have the resources to be able to contain 30,000 gallons of toxic runoff water? What would the contingency plan be if that same toxic water froze to ice when it hit the ground? What about traffic? What about traction for staff? You may well have to shut down a major thoroughfare for multiple hours to extinguish the fire, but what happens to the fabulous frozen toxic water ice sculpture that you’ve just created with all that water? This question also brings up a couple of personal protective equipment and staff issues. Does your department issue or require boot chains for conditions like this scene would present? We certainly don’t want to leave firefighters out in the freezing cold for four hours on a car fire; however, insomuch as their turnout gear will be contaminated and very likely frozen, we can’t really let them back into the cab of a truck, so how do we warm them up on scene?

Remember, too, that anyone on the scene of one of these fires that could be exposed to the smoke (very toxic) or other byproducts of combustion must be on breathing air. This also means being on breathing air for the entire time needed for overhaul. Simply stated, you are going to need lots of self-contained breathing apparatus bottles.

It is also imperative that exposed personnel do a gross decontamination before getting back into the apparatus when the event is over. Many of us use a liquid spray decon method for this procedure, but if your gear is already frozen from the firefight, what good is adding more liquid to already ice-covered frozen gear? Do you have a plan B? There are a couple of great companies out there that offer gear bags made especially for contaminated gear, but what if the gear is frozen solid?

Many of us are very used to dealing with cold winter weather fire department-related challenges. Very few of us are used to dealing with these new electric vehicle fire challenges. I can personally guarantee you that the mix of the two adds up to a very long and formidable call (that used to be routine). I hope this column makes you think of resources, equipment, and apparatus you might need or need to plan for before you might actually need them.


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.

No posts to display