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NFPA calls for first responders to learn about hazards and response tactics

An electric vehicle (EV) crash in Woodlands, Texas has prompted significant scrutiny and calls for emergency personnel to be trained on the fire risks associated with high voltage, lithium batteries within EVs (electric vehicles). In response to the tragic accident that killed two occupants last week, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are reminding first and second responders that resources are available to help safely address incidents involving EVs.

Although the cause of the recent Tesla incident is still being determined, news reports indicate that, despite intense heat, the fire was extinguished within four minutes. Firefighters; however, remained on scene for four hours cooling the car’s battery with tens of thousands of gallons of water.

The popularity of EVs is growing, according to online car shopping site Edmunds. “We’re not only about to see a massive leap in the number of EVs available in the market; we’re also going to see a more diverse lineup of electric vehicles that better reflect current consumer preferences.

And given that the new presidential administration has pledged its support for electrification, the U.S. is likely to see incentive programs targeted at fostering the growth of this technology further,” Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds’ executive director of insights said. The company went on to say that 30 EVs from 21 brands will become available for sale this year, compared to 17 vehicles from 12 brands in 2020. Notably, this will be the first year that there will be offerings in all three major vehicle categories: cars, SUVs, and trucks.

While EVs are great for the environment, new technologies often present a learning curve for first responders. In the interest of public and responder safety, NTSB investigated four EV incidents and released a thorough report in November on hazards and gaps. In particular, the NTSB identified two concerning trends:

  • inadequate vehicle manufacturers’ emergency response guides
  • gaps in both safety standards and research related to lithium-ion batteries involved in high-speed, high-severity crashes

The NTSB also found, in part, that:

  • Damage and fire because of a crash may prevent first responders from disabling the high voltage in electric vehicles
  • Thermal runaway and battery reignitions after initial fire suppression can pose additional challenges
  • Stranded energy can cause electric shock and potential fire hazards
  • Safely storing an electric vehicle with a damaged high-voltage lithium-ion battery in a tow yard may not be feasible

NFPA has been developing EV safety information for 12 years. The association has worked with every auto/truck/bus manufacturer who sells EVs and hybrids in this country and has received pre-market safety information so that responders have the most up-to-date training, tools, and resources.

The NFPA EV Safety Training website, www.evsafetytraining.org, is the most accessed repository in the U.S. for EV responder safety information. This dedicated site offers videos on stranded energy, responder tactics, a fact sheet with on-scene safety information, and direct links to all NFPA EV Safety Training courses and vehicle resources, including U.S. EV Emergency Response Guides.

To help communities deal with EV-related response and the infrastructure challenges that go together with market growth, NFPA has secured two Department of Energy (DOE) grants related to EVs. The first, entitled NFPA Spurs the Safe Adoption of EVs through Education and Outreach, will allow NFPA to develop free EV safety training for utilities, code officials, charging station installers, EV fleet owners, tow and salvage responders, crash reconstruction teams, manufacturers, dealerships, garage maintenance workers, insurance companies, and EV owners.

As part of that effort, NFPA, in conjunction with Clean Cities Coalitions, will also set up community planning meetings in 30 cities around the country to help prepare these locations for a large influx of EVs.

The second effort calls for enhancing and promoting an NFPA Distributed Energy Resources Safety Training program. NFPA will update its current EV Safety classroom training for the fire service and develop an online gamification version of the distributed energy resource including how to respond to electric vehicle fires.