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Firefighters Embrace Innovation to Extinguish EV Fire Risks

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Background

An electric car fire burns differently from diesel or petrol car fires. What are the new risks, how are local fire departments being impacted, and what can they do to adapt?

Around the world, fire departments are starting to respond to blazes that won’t go out. 

According to Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions, 239 fires recorded in the UK from July 2022 to June 2023 were linked to electric vehicles (EVs). While this isn’t a high incident rate, it’s a dangerous one: EVs are powered by lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. This makes them rechargeable and less environmentally harmful to run than diesel or petrol cars but it also makes them a significant fire risk. This is because Li-ion battery fires are self-sustaining, which means they go on and on, despite the best efforts of fire teams attending incidents.

Self-sustaining fires are incredibly difficult to extinguish using traditional methods. As EVs continue to grow in popularity, what is the impact of EV fires on local governments and how are fire departments adapting to meet the challenge before it rages out of control?

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About the author

My name is Ben Seddon and since 2007 I’ve helped a wide range of industrial, institutional, educational, and commercial customers from across the UK source the Emtez solutions they need to comply with key legislation and keep their people safe. Today, these solutions include spill kits, absorbents, flammable liquid containers, and specialist lithium-ion battery storage solutions designed to contain and control lithium-ion battery fires in the event of an incident. 

Click to download your copy of our four-step risk assessment checklist for lithium-ion batteries.

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The impact on local fire departments 

When an EV goes up in flames, its Li-ion battery presents different challenges than car fires involving diesel or petrol. Around the world, this is already impacting the effectiveness of fire departments’ responses to EVs that have caught fire in several notable ways.

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“We’re not extinguishing fires anymore, we’re cooling them.”

“When you have an engine compartment fire on a gasoline-powered vehicle, you open the hood, put water on it and you go about your day. With an electric vehicle, we don’t have access to the cells that are on fire. It’s an enclosed package,” Michael O’Brian, the chief of the Brighton Area Fire Authority in Michigan, explains. “So we’re not extinguishing fires anymore, we’re cooling them. We can’t stop that fire. It has its own oxygen. It creates its own heat. We’re cooling them to limit that fire from spreading.”

This has implications ranging from a fire department’s ability to control a blaze to an increased risk to human life, including the health and safety of the attending firefighters.

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“This could be a three-hour incident for us.”

“Most accidents involving a regular vehicle or a vehicle fire – as long as it’s not in a structure – take about 30 minutes. It takes two to three firefighters and they’re done,” Michael adds. “But that incident [with EVs containing Li-ion batteries] where we have a thermal runaway is a minimum of one hour. If that battery pack is unable to be cooled, or if it continues to propagate from cell to cell, this could be a three-hour incident for us.”

This introduces much more complexity and risk into what would otherwise be a 30-minute incident. Firefighters can’t remain in their air packs for that length of time, meaning multiple crews are required to attend. Water consumption increases “from 500 gallons to extinguish a vehicle fire to in excess of 5,000 – anywhere between 3,000 and 10,000 gallons [for EVs]”. 

According to Heycar, “it is estimated that between 2% and 3% of cars in the UK are electric or hybrid, but this percentage is increasing all the time as electric cars enjoy a growing share of new car registrations.” That translates to more than one million battery-powered vehicles now registered to drive on UK roads. How can fire departments here and elsewhere around the world adapt their operations to meet this change?

Changing technology creates the demand for new safety solutions

In his interview with Route Fifty, Michael is quick to identify that “changing technologies could also affect the kinds of equipment and staffing that fire departments require.”

The increased risk associated with EV fires and the unique challenges Li-ion battery fires pose means fire departments will need to adapt in order to respond to incidents effectively.

Water is still widely considered the best way to tackle these blazes. However, given that EV battery cells are enclosed, how the water is deployed needs to be reviewed to maintain its effectiveness. This is where applications exist for Fluvial Innovations’ QuarantineFence.

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Quarantining EV fire risk

Originally designed to contain and manage flood water, Fluvial Innovations’ FloodFence solutions have come to be recognised as one of the most effective and practical solutions when it comes to putting out a super-heated, difficult-to-extinguish EV Li-ion battery fire. 

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Specifically developed for this purpose, Fluvial Innovations’ QuarantineFence solution is already being used by fire departments in Japan, South Korea, and the UK. It works by creating a barrier around the burning vehicle, which can then be filled with water, submerging the battery and extinguishing the fire. It comes in both lightweight and heavyweight varieties for use on fires of different sizes and intensities, and it can be rapidly deployed for speed of response. Its design also makes it easy to handle and store.IMG_6030

But Li-ion fires restart!

Yes, Li-ion battery fires can actually reignite for up to three days after they have been extinguished. Under normal circumstances, this would be a significant challenge to fire departments for the resources required to monitor the vehicle and the health risks it poses. 

But a submerged Li-ion battery can’t reignite, meaning EV fires neutralised using QuarantineFence are safer post-incident, too. “When an EV catches fire, it will burn with long-term intensity,” QuarantineFence designer and Fluvial Innovations founder Simon Phelps explains. “The only way to prevent Li-ion battery thermal runaway is to submerge the EV battery in water for a long period of time. This will prevent the battery from reigniting.”

Related reads:

  • Product Spotlight: QuarantineFence
  • Extinguish the Risk of EV Reignition Using this Innovative FloodFence System

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Fighting fire with innovation

“I don’t think a lot of communities realize how many electric vehicles are now within their area,” Michael adds. “That incident where we have a thermal runaway [...] There’s an added layer of complexity. There’s an added layer of time. There’s an added layer of technicality. A lot of it is just changing the mindset and adopting a more defensive approach.

In all these areas and more, fire departments are going to need to adapt their responses to continue delivering effective services in their local communities. QuarantineFence is one example of how firefighters around the world are already expanding their inventories to accommodate the rise in EVs. 

As challenges around EV fires continue to grow, it will not just be water that firefighters need to tackle them. Innovation will be key to extinguishing risk and saving lives, one burning battery at a time. Are your operations ready?

For more information about QuarantineFence or any of our Li-ion battery storage products, click the image below to download your free copy of our Li-ion catalogue, available now.