Firefighters adapt to quirks of electric vehicles


When firefighter Jason Emery arrives at the site of a major car crash, he knows to disconnect the car's battery to shut off the source of energy.

But if that car is an electric vehicle, Emery might have to take a second step - cutting off the much larger lithium-ion battery pack.

Emery, a lieutenant in the Waterbury, Conn., fire department, is on the front line of a new safety challenge: reducing the risk of fire when electric vehicles and hybrids are in accidents. As lead electric-vehicle safety instructor for the National Fire Protection Association, Emery helped develop an online class that more than 10,000 firefighters have taken since April. General Motors and fire academies have also hosted training sessions.

Still, automakers lack one consistent fire-prevention procedure for electric vehicle batteries, Emery said. Manufacturers, including GM and Nissan provide notebooks with recommendations. GM also sends in a team to drain the car's battery following any major Chevrolet Volt accident.

So Emery said he would prefer standard procedures, which could come once the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finishes its review of post-crash electric vehicles. NHTSA announced the review last week after confirming a Volt extended-range electric had caught fire more than three weeks following a crash test.

That Volt caught fire because NHTSA did not know to drain the Volt's battery. The battery case had been punctured, spilling coolant, which caused a short that in turn triggered a fire, GM spokesman Rob Peterson said this week.

The NHTSA reiterated this week that it believes electric vehicles have no greater risk of fire than any other vehicles.

The automaker is working to give NHTSA its tool to drain Volt batteries, Peterson said. The tool should be available at dealerships next year, eliminating the need for the GM team to visit in the case of a crash. GM has only had to send out employees to drain batteries a few times this year, he said, since the automaker has only sold about 5,300 Volts so far.

GM has held first-responder training in major Volt launch markets such as Detroit, California and Washington, D.C. In addition, the National Fire Protection Association has trained academies in 12 states and hopes to hold a session in all 50 states by theof next year.

"Most emergency responders are going to be able to handle it," he said. "In reality, we handle whatever gets thrown at us."

Even if firefighters haven't been trained, Emery said, they have long been familiar with the danger associated with extra batteries in hybrids.

The firefighters' group is also compiling a quick-reference guide that would keep each manufacturers' recommendations handy for firefighters.

Volts have been involved in three fires, but the NHTSA blaze was the only one so far to have been blamed on the car. In one of the other fires, a garage blaze in Connecticut, the Volt's battery was not drained, which caused the car to reignite three days after the original fire.

Both NHTSA and GM continue to insist the Volt is at least as safe as gasoline-powered vehicles. After all, GM spokesman Greg Martin said, more than 200,000 fires occurred in gasoline-fueled vehicles last year in the U.S.
By Chrissie Thompson / The Detroit Free Press


5 things to know about electric vehicle safety


Electric vehicles are finally hitting the roads in the United States. Technology that was once thought of as futuristic is fast becoming reality.

The introduction of these vehicles is being met with a great deal of enthusiasm from car fans and the public in general. Whether or not these cars have hit the road in your city, it is hard to ignore the attention surrounding the first wide-scale introduction of this new technology.

However, with any new technology comes the need for firefighters and other first responders to understand how to respond in the event of an accident.

For this reason, NFPA, through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, is developing an Electric Vehicle Safety Training program to provide firefighters and other first responders with information they need to most effectively deal with emergency situations involving these electric vehicles.

Working with auto manufacturers, including Chevrolet and others, the trainings will give first responders the information and resources to prepare and respond.

The trainings will begin in early 2011, but here is a teaser of the five things to know about electric vehicle safety and topics that will be covered in NFPA's Electric Vehicle Safety Training:

1.  High strength steel is used in certain locations of most electric vehicle models. Identifying the location of this steel is important when it comes to knowing the right tools to use when responding to an incident.

2.  Proper procedures for the identification of appropriate cut points for electrical shut-off will be important in the event of extrication.

3.  Like many hybrid models recently introduced, electric vehicles emit very little sound and it is important to ensure that vehicles are properly turned off prior to engagement.

4.  There will be new challenges presented by vehicle charging stations and other infrastructure associated with electric vehicles.

5.  Just like with any new technology, training is important. Firefighters and first responders have always met any challenges coming their way. The introduction of electric vehicles is simply the latest one.
By Ken Willette / NFPA Division Manager, Public Fire Protection


Electric and hybrid vehicle response safety: Myths and facts


Electric Car

As part of an ongoing push for clean energy, President Obama called earlier this year for one million electric cars to be on U.S. roads by 2015.

What was once thought of as futuristic technology is fast becoming a reality. With it, comes new challenges for responders.

The influx of hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and the recent nationwide release of two electric vehicles (EVs) and the implications for responders came under the spotlight during a session at Fire-Rescue Med in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

Last summer, the NFPA announced a joint effort with Chevrolet and OnStar to provide electric vehicle safety training for first responders to the scene of an accident, which has resulted in

As part of the program, teams have also toured the country to bring training directly to departments and agencies.

"What we have found is there's a lot of interesting stuff floating around about these vehicles, we've heard interesting stories about what you have to do to make them safe," said George Baker, public policy manager for OnStar.

Baker said the investment, both from the public and private sector, is huge, meaning these new vehicles are here to stay for good.

"It's not like these are going to disappear tomorrow," he said. "But I think what you need to keep in mind is we have always adapted to changing technology in emergency services."

A common misconception concerning the new vehicles, according to Baker, is that they look different to regular cars.

"When it comes to identifying them, some people think they look really different, that they are bubbles, when in reality they look like standard models. The bulk of them are all based on standard vehicles chassis," he said.

Jason Emery, fire service training consultant at the NFPA, went on to outline some of the main response concerns that they have come across specifically, perception versus reality.

The first, he said, is that high voltage batteries will leak dangerous amounts of fluid if damaged. This is not the case, the session was told, as the batteries are not lead acid, NiMH and Li-lon are dry cell batteries, electrolyte is absorbed in a medium, and only a few drops may be produced if a cell is crushed.

Another concern from many responders is that they risk electrocution by touching an HEV/EV involved in a crash or is submerged.

Again, the reality of the matter is different, with Emery telling the session that the high voltage system is completely isolated from the chassis and that integrated safety systems and basic electrical theory protect occupants and responders.

Another misconception, Emery said, is that it is difficult to disable the HV electrical safety system. In reality, these new vehicles have integrated shutdowns in the event of crash, shutting of the vehicle's ignition will shut down the HV.

In addition, the concern that special equipment is needed for fires in these vehicles is misplaced attendees at the conference learned that fires in HEVs and EVs are extinguished with standard firefighting procedures.

However, there are some issues responders need to be aware of, with one of the main challenges being unexpected movement of the vehicle.

"You really have to keep in mind that these make no engine noises," Emery said. "You have to be careful. Nowadays, when approaching any scene, you should never approach the vehicle from the front or rear."

The solution? Always ensure the vehicle is shut down and secured from moving, according to Emery. Wheels should be chocked, the emergency brake engaged and the vehicle should be placed in park.

With these vehicles becoming evermore commonplace on roads across the United States, Emery said responders should begin to develop the mindset that vehicles involved in incidents are HEVs or EVs until proven otherwise.

"It's easier to start that way and work your way back," he said. "We need to respect them. There's some stuff in there that can hurt if you're not careful, but we shouldn't see this growth as the end of the world."
By Jamie Thompson / FireRescue1 Senior Editor


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