EVs Require New Procedures for First Responders

Volvo donated an XC40 Recharge SUV to the New York City Fire Department to help first responders update their training procedures and protocols with regard to electric vehicles. (Volvo)

Electric vehicles (EVs), with their large battery packs and sophisticated electronics, pose different challenges to first responders than traditional gas-powered vehicles when an accident occurs. While there might be gallons of highly combustible material threatening to explode when a conventional internal combustion engine vehicle crashes, fire departments and emergency medical personnel have had many decades to learn how to deal with crashed gas-powered cars and trucks safely. EVs can also be approached safely, but they require different tactics.

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is the lead federal agency that educates the public about fire safety and conducts fire service training research. In a report published in November 2020, the USFA said there are three main safety risks when it comes to incidents involving electric vehicles powered by high-voltage lithium-ion batteries: thermal runaway, stranded energy, and battery reignition.

Thermal runaway is when damaged cells in a battery experience uncontrolled increases in temperature and pressure, which can cause a fire (or restart one, which is called battery reignition). Stranded energy remains in a damaged battery, which can shock someone who comes into contact with it.

Automakers build safety features into their vehicles to disconnect a vehicle’s high-voltage systems, including automatic shutdowns and when the ignition is turned off. But even with these automated systems, first responders need to learn how to safely approach a damaged EV and get anyone inside out without causing more harm. This training is done through automaker safety bulletins as well as hands-on practice.

Pure-electric vehicles require different extrication procedures when compared to conventionally powered cars, which is why Tesla, for example, offers model-specific guides for first responders who might be dealing with a fire in one of its electric cars. Legacy automakers have provided these kinds of documents to first responders for years for both their gas-powered and plug-in hybrid models. But just as firefighters sometimes use controlled fires of empty buildings to learn how houses burn, there are hands-on ways emergency personnel can get detailed information about electric vehicles and use that to update their safety protocols.

This week, Volvo donated an all-electric XC40 Recharge to the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) for training purposes. The FDNY says it will use the EV to update its training procedures and protocols, “with the aim to both quickly and safely extricate passengers and keep first responders safe.” First responders often share their lessons learned with other departments, which means the donated vehicle could help people outside the New York City area.