By on October 9, 2020

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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29 Comments on “NTSB Claims Half of U.S. Fire Departments Can’t Handle EV Fires...”

  • avatar

    Is it even possible to put out EV fire? Unlike regular fire, EV fire doesn’t need oxygen. All chemicals that the combustion needs are in the battery.

  • avatar

    This should come as no surprise. When airbags were new, we had plenty of stories of firefighters freaking out at the corn starch that exploded along with the air bag. They didn’t know what it was, so they all backed off and called in the guys in moon suits to cleanse the area.

  • avatar

    I work in the waste industry, where lithium (and other rechargeable) batteries are the source of almost 95% of all industry fires. The best thing to do to extinguish them are LOTS of water. The water absorbs the heat being released from the batteries and thus eventually extinguishes the fire. But, as mentioned above, it requires copious amounts of water to absorb the intense heat produced.

  • avatar

    A learning curve. No different than if we suddenly embraced the use of highly flammable gasoline. Try selling that to today’s risk-adverse population…yeah we want you to drive around with 18 gallons of explosive liquid fuel…and don’t forget managing all that waste heat from combustion…

    This too shall pass

    • 0 avatar

      This article tells us where we are on that learning curve. I didn’t know this information, and it’s concerning. Another cost & task on the way to implementing EVs, reminding us it’s not all about the cars, but the infrastructure.

  • avatar

    “the additional risks of electrical shock, toxic fumes, toxic runoff, and re-ignition”

    Toxic fumes and runoff? Anyone know more about this? How bad are the fumes and runoff?

  • avatar

    I’m a firefighter in Yosemite, and our training regarding EV fires can more or less be summed up as “save the people, then let the car burn”. We only have a thousand gallons of water on the engine, and the “recommended” amount of water for an involved Tesla is five thousand gallons. If there isn’t a hydrant nearby (there almost never is here), all we can really safely do is let it burn all the way down.

    • 0 avatar

      “If there isn’t a hydrant nearby (there almost never is here), all we can really safely do is let it burn all the way down.”

      So, the same for a house to eh?

    • 0 avatar
      Funky D

      Can anyone appreciate the irony that California is mandating the use of electric cars which, when they catch on fire, require ridiculous amounts of water the Calfornia does not have after fighting the wildfires caused by poor forest management?

      Ah, liberalism.

      • 0 avatar

        “caused by poor forest management?”

        The poor forest management is on the federal government since they own the vast majority of the forested land. Also, you don’t think conventional car fires don’t need a lot of water to put out? Maybe you could do your part by buying a rake and volunteering to clean up a few million acres? Maybe a weed wacker too. Get a lithium battery powered one since they’re a bit lighter to carry.

        I live near some forests that are very well managed. There’s still no way you’re going to stop a forest fire with tons of fuel just sticking up out of the ground.

        • 0 avatar
          Funky D

          Funny that other states don’t seem to have this large a problem even though they are as dry or drier than California.

          • 0 avatar

            Oregon and Washington had fires as well. Australia had fires too. It’s not just California. Here in the Northeast, it’s been dry too, but not as bad as the West. Under the right conditions, we could have the same problems.

          • 0 avatar

            To get a good handle on the mentality of folks like Funky D, replace the word “wildfire” with something like “hurricane,” and you get this gem of logic:

            “Hurricanes don’t seem to be as large a problem in states that aren’t red-as-f**k, like Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama. When’s the last time New England got nuked like New Orleans did? But that’s conservatism for you.”

            Anyone up for another viewing of “Idiocracy” with me?

          • 0 avatar

            RE – fire spread. Doesn’t California have the Santa Anna winds and topography that exacerbate the problem?

          • 0 avatar


            You’re right, California fires are nothing new, although since politicizing science is now en vogue….

        • 0 avatar

          • 0 avatar

            @snorlax: US Only?




          • 0 avatar

            Poor forest management is indeed a problem in other countries besides the US. However it is not much of a problem in Canada nor Mexico, which is why the fires (not so) mysteriously stop at the US border.

      • 0 avatar
        Mike Beranek

        California is not mandating electric cars, it is merely prohibiting new fossil-fuel cars to be sold after a certain date. There’s a big difference.

  • avatar

    “Hold tight
    We’re in for nasty weather
    There has got to be a way
    Burning down the house

    Here’s your ticket pack your bags
    Time for jumpin’ overboard
    The transportation is here”

    – Talking Heads, 1983

  • avatar

    lithium ?? all my priii use nickle metal hydride –
    older tech , far more stable

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    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.

  • avatar

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

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