Electric cars are becoming more and more popular, primarily because they are better for the environment and use a renewable energy source. Along with being less expensive to use and maintain, there are many benefits to electric vehicles. Despite the undoubted benefits of electrifying our transport fleet, there is a growing sense of concern about the hidden dangers of electric cars – especially for firefighters and emergency responders.
Electric cars are fundamentally extremely safe, but their rechargeable lithium-ion battery is the leading cause of concern. When a rechargeable lithium-ion battery is damaged, real danger can occur. If the battery is exposed to excessive heat, or if the battery is punctured, there will be an internal short circuit. This circuit causes Joule heating – a vicious cycle of generating heat that continues to get faster and faster, which could ignite or explode if the process continues.
Due to the potential for dangerous situations, another major concern is that not all first responders have access to proper training to learn key differences between putting fires out in gas and electric cars. In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published a report noting that first responders generally lack an understanding of how to put out electric car fires.
To learn more about the risks and dangers fire departments face due to electric cars, we connected with Dennis Costin, a 41-year veteran of the Boston Fire Department and current President of the Boston Firefighters Burn Foundation.
Before joining the Boston Firefighters Burn Foundation leadership team 15 years ago, Dennis held various positions during his tenure at Boston Fire, including serving as the District Chief in charge of Special Ops Hazmat/WMD. Dennis also has years of experience with fire suppression, technical rescue, and hazmat duties. Before his retirement, Dennis responded to numerous hazmat fires and completed safety training for electric vehicles. At Boston Fire, they follow a standard policy to treat an electric car accident like any electric hazard.
Although lithium-ion batteries do present a real danger, electric car fires are very rare. In fact, electric vehicles catch fire less often than gasoline-powered cars, but the duration and intensity of the fires can make the fires in electric cars much harder to put out.
Dennis explained that you must safely secure the vehicle after using copious amounts of water to extinguish the fire. Stabilizing the car is incredibly important for any vehicle, but especially for electric cars because they are silent. If the car is not secure and the battery generates enough power to start the engine, the vehicle could potentially drive off. Another significant difference for electric vehicles is the concern of reignition, which can occur up to 24 hours after.
It’s also essential to work with the manufacturer to ensure proper precautions are being taken. Many firefighters turn to the internet to find emergency response guides designed to help identify where the battery is in each make and model of vehicle.
Dennis shared that vehicle manufacturers have improved their guidelines and access to tools, including hotlines, for emergency responders, but there's certainly still room for improvement.
Dennis Costin and the Boston Firefighters Burn Foundation (BFBF) are long-term supporters of Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. BFBF is a fire service leader in supporting survivor recovery at both the local and national levels. The organization understands the lifelong journey that survivors and their loved ones face and have a deep involvement with children and family programming to address these needs.