NTSB Claims Half of U.S. Fire Departments Can't Handle EV Fires

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
ntsb claims half of u s fire departments cant handle ev fires

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been outstanding when it some to destroying whatever illusions we’ve built up around ourselves in terms of automotive security. When the Department of Transportation was claiming advanced driving aids would eventually lead us to a future where car accidents were a thing of the past, the NTSB was there running crash investigations suggesting that those systems were not only error-prone but likely encouraging motorists to become more distracted behind the wheel.

Now its back to burst another bubble. According to data compiled from over a dozen reports, the NTSB believes fire departments are woefully unprepared to tackle hybrid and electric vehicles. The group estimated that roughly half of all American departments lacked any protocols for tackling such fires. Even among those who did, the criteria provided was often quite lax and might be insufficient for suppressing those famously troublesome lithium-ion battery fires.

With EV sales relatively low in the United States and battery fires seemingly no more common than their gasoline equivalent, that’s not much of an issue right now. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been pretty clear that EV fires require special protocols. Breaking out the hoses and aiming the nozzle at a burning Tesla might seem prudent. But grazing a punctured battery pack with water when the flames are really starting to pick up can cause secondary explosions that will ruin your day.

“Electric vehicle fires can exceed 5,000 F. Applying water or foam may cause a violent flare-up as the water molecules separate into explosive hydrogen and oxygen gases,” FEMA explained before diving into the additional risks of electrical shock, toxic fumes, toxic runoff, and re-ignition.

Tesla has likewise sponsored training that suggests getting a steady stream of water on the battery pack is the best thing for an EV fire. While FEMA and the NTSB agree, they’ve decided that the amount of water used needs to exceed what would have been effective on a normal vehicle fire and should start with having a comprehensive understanding of how electric automobiles are structured. Understanding the nuances of a battery fire also helps the response team avoid electrifying themselves during rescue operations or reigniting the blaze when towing the wreckage away.

According to Bloomberg, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the National Volunteer Fire Council to survey 32 departments in 2018 to assess the nation’s readiness. Roughly 65 percent of departments said awareness of EVs, training for those types of fires — in addition to a lack of funding — were all obstacles they needed to overcome.

From Bloomberg:

The NTSB began its investigation after a series of crashes in which batteries on EVs, including several cases involving Tesla Inc. vehicles, burst into flames after crashes.

After a March 23, 2018, accident on a California freeway, a Tesla Model X caught fire twice within 24 hours and again six days later.

The NTSB has also documented instances in which firefighters didn’t use the preferred method to fight a battery fire: copious amounts of water to cool overheating power packs and tamp down flames.

The most aggressive fires have involved lithium-based batteries, which can self-ignite and are difficult to extinguish, such as those installed on Teslas.

A regulatory framework has been suggested, especially now that the NTSB believes national preparedness is lacking. But the details have to be ironed out and fitted for departmental training regiments as new tools and tactics are developed. FEMA’s more-generic protocols will have to suffice until then, along with the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) emergency field guide for dealing with alternative energy vehicles.

[Image: Wideweb/Shutterstock]

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  • SCE to AUX SCE to AUX on Oct 10, 2020

    Not surprising, as this has been an ongoing issue. One complicating factor is that the high voltage wiring {always orange, by the way) can be located anywhere in the car, especially with AWD. I suspect the increase in energy density of battery packs will make the problem worse. But still, it's worth noting that while battery fires are hot and all-consuming, they aren't explosive like gasoline. That Model X cited in the story was torn in half, demonstrating how hard it is to actually breach the battery case.

  • Brn Brn on Oct 11, 2020

    Nice to see that folk here are understanding, unlike another automotive website I visit.

  • ToolGuy 2019 had better comments than 2023 😉
  • Inside Looking Out In June 1973, Leonid Brezhnev arrived in Washington for his second summit meeting with President Richard Nixon. Knowing of the Soviet leader’s fondness for luxury automobiles, Nixon gave him a shiny Lincoln Continental. Brezhnev was delighted with the present and insisted on taking a spin around Camp David, speeding through turns while the president nervously asked him to slow down. https://academic.oup.com/dh/article-abstract/42/4/548/5063004
  • Bobby D'Oppo Great sound and smooth power delivery in a heavier RWD or AWD vehicle is a nice blend, but current V8 pickup trucks deliver an unsophisticated driving experience. I think a modern full-size pickup could be very well suited to a manual transmission.In reality, old school, revvy atmo engines pair best with manual transmissions because it's so rewarding to keep them in the power band on a winding road. Modern turbo engines have flattened the torque curve and often make changing gears feel more like a chore.
  • Chuck Norton For those worried about a complex power train-What vehicle doesn't have one? I drive a twin turbo F-150 (3.5) Talk about complexity.. It seems reliability based on the number of F-150s sold is a non-issue. As with many other makes/models. I mean how many operations are handle by micro processors...in today's vehicles?
  • Ravenuer The Long Island Expressway.