Episode 14 Firefighting Considerations for Electric Vehicle Fires

Jason Loyd:

Welcome to the Public Sector Programs podcast series. Each episode features subject matter professionals discussing strategies and techniques for fire and emergency services professionals to consider as they prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.  This series is brought to you by the Emergency Services Training Institute, a division of The Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. 

Jason Loyd:

Good morning everyone. My name is Jason Loyd, Training Manager at TEEX out here at Brayton Fire Field in College Station, Texas. Today I have two panelists with me. I have Jason Harris, Training Specialist with the TEEX Rescue Program, as well as Justin Fryer, Agency Instructor with the Recruit Academy here on the fire field.  We’re going to be talking about firefighting considerations for electrical vehicle fires. Jason, I’m going to hand it over to you sir.

Jason Harris:

Thank you, Jason, thank you, Justin for joining us on the podcast today. Again folks, this is going to be a podcast of very significant importance. This is going to be a topic that has been thrust to the forefront of the firefighting profession. And it’s going to be dealing with vehicle fires, in regards or considerations, for electric vehicles.  Again, this is one of these situations that we as firefighters, and Justin you’re going to allude to this in a moment, have been thrust into this environment. We know that, as firefighters, we have to progress, we have to continue to train, we have to continue to learn, but a lot of our processes, and especially dealing with this topic, you’re going to hear that, a lot of the processes are the techniques and things that we are accustomed to using are not necessarily the case with regards to these types of vehicles and so the importance for us today in this podcast is to shed some light on on the firefighting tactics and strategies with this, but also too, to bring some of these instances, like the incident with you Justin, out here to the public so we can honestly talk about this and bring some of these considerations out and just make this a topic of importance so that we can continue again that training and that education leg. So, with that being said, Justin we’ve got you on today because you had a situation in your department that, again, was extremely challenging with regard to electric vehicles, and so we’d really like to hear your story about this. Then while we’re doing that, we’re absolutely going to discuss some of those topics that you’re going to bring up, and hopefully, we can bring some importance to this topic. Justin go ahead and take it away.

Justin Fryer:

I’m Justin Fryer, Firefighter/Paramedic and then also a recruit adjunct instructor. So yeah, a couple weeks ago we had an incident that gained pretty good momentum nationally, and actually even internationally, and involved an electric car, a Tesla. What was interesting about it, was when the call actually came out, it came out as a small outside fire. Where I work, we get those kinds of things pretty often, so we were all kind of in our bread and butter mode, okay grab a water can. You know, nothing too crazy. Well in route to the call, we kept getting more and more information, and by the time we got there, and one thing I don’t mind revealing is, I think I may have gotten a little tunnel vision on the call itself. Upon our arrival, the car was fully involved, probably 10 to 20’ flames coming from it, and the car had burned so hot and so fast that there wasn’t much about it that was recognizable. In fact, it was probably a few minutes into the incident and we got what I would call the Class A part of the fire extinguished pretty quickly within a few minutes, from the interior burning to that kind of stuff. But what was interesting to me is, I didn’t realize that it was an electric car until a few minutes into the situation. In fact, the only way that we could end up identifying it was on one of the back wheels there was a Tesla logo and that’s what we actually finally were able to identify it from because that was really the only identifiable piece of the vehicle left intact.

Jason Harris:

Well, Justin.  And again, that’s just another one of those things, and you referenced that. You brought that up about, hey, this is our bread and butter, here’s our operations. Again, like you said, you’re being straightforward and honest. Hey man, I got a little tunnel vision, hey it’s a car fire, hey we we know what we’re doing, we got this. With you saying that, and again looking at this, I’ve referenced this from an article by Car and Driver by Sebastian Blanco in 2020. The National Transportation and Safety Board, found that in the United States, we are woefully unprepared, as it states, to deal with electric vehicle fires. Again, the strategies and tactics are going to be much different than your typical gasoline fires. It also stated that a percentage, and as it states here 31%, of these fire departments don’t train for this. Half the departments don’t have special protocols. Again, because our typical normal bread and butter stuff is in our operations. But when we’re not identifying this, this is not on our radar and again, just as you said, we finally identified that this is what it was. The intensity, as it states right here, can exceed 5000 degrees Fahrenheit. I mean, that just boggled my mind when I first read this. I was like, oh my goodness, and then just looking at the situation as a whole. I wanted to touch on these things before you get a little bit more of a deep dive. I mean this is where we’re at and again, you guys were thrust to the forefront right there in front of you to make some of these decisions so man continue.

Justin Fryer:

Yeah so again, not realizing exactly what we were dealing with, you kind of made your attack as you’re talking. When you are fighting the interior of the car fire, well what you mentioned too is, we’re all kind of taught to fight a car fire a certain way. Typically, we’re going to have to make access to the engine compartment. We’re going to have to do those kinds of things. This is a different animal, you’ve got basically a tray underneath that car, at least on a Tesla, and that tray, when I say the tray underneath, I’m talking about the entire undercarriage of that vehicle. It’s basically a big tray full of thousands of batteries and as it burns it’s basically creating an exothermic reaction. So the way to think about it is basically, one setting off the next, is setting off the next, and setting off the next, so as one begins to off gas, that next one’s lighting off and you’re basically posed with a challenge of how do I stop this reaction? So, we’re taught in firefighting electric fire stuff like that maybe try dry chem or a CO2. The only thing, Tesla and a lot of the literature, are saying you can do is try to cool it.

Jason Harris:

And hey, you were just talking about that and I jumped over here to this slide. Thermal runaway and stranded energy. Those are two concepts that again, typically in a gasoline type, diesel type, those types of fuel fires, that is not something that we deal with, but exactly like you’re talking about. All of these batteries and in this compartment and the way that these things are igniting, and again, the key that chemical process and as you brought up in the Tesla, and I’ve got the NFPA ERG Guide with regards to Tesla, and as you talked about cooling and bringing these ignition temperatures down and being able to fully extinguish and cool these things down because again there is a chance for reignition and you’re going to talk about that here you know here directly so again man I’m interested keep going man.

Justin Fryer:

Sure, so yeah one of the unique challenges that we faced was that the vehicle had left the roadway and it was it was off in the grass. Obviously with us spraying water we kind of created a mud hole, and a Tesla rides fairly low to the road anyways, so with the unique problem of basically the fire that you’re trying to fight is confined up in that battery tray, so it is the undercarriage of the car that’s where those batteries are. We faced a unique challenge of trying to get access to that because the car was basically sitting on its on its frame you know we kind of tossed around different ideas. Hey we had tried to direct streams, we tried to come through wheel wells, we just at one point even kind of directed a couple of dry chem extinguishers up there. We were just trying anything we could think of. Where I work, we’re fortunate that we have an on-duty HazMat team and we kind of bounced ideas off our incident command, and bounced his ideas off of them. It turned out that what the literature says, and what we found out that night is, it’s just copious amounts of water you’re gonna have to get cold water.

Jason Harris:

Well and again, two things to that that brings up some conversation to me.  Talk about the copious amounts of water, right here in this ERG Guide or this NFPA ERG Guide from Tesla, it can take approximately 3000 gallons of water applied directly to the battery to fully extinguish. I mean that’s coming from an emergency response guide and I looked at another an emergency response guide for Chevy and it basically like you’re talking about, it states right here in it, use copious amounts of water. So again, as you’ve done your research and you go, oh my god, copious amounts, that’s just again and you’re going to bring up, so I’m not going to steal your thunder. I’m going to let you bring up the total amount, but when you say copious amounts of water, and then also too one of the big you touched on is, you talk to your hazardous materials unit. I mean you guys tell me we would have never thought in this situation, a normal car fire, are we going to call a HazMat team for a normal car fire. I mean unless this thing has something in the trunk, or some type of, but no I mean we talk about large transportation emergencies, railway emergencies, 18-wheeler emergency situation. Absolutely those are absolutely going to be times where we’re going to need hazardous materials unit as a support situation, but as you stated Justin, this was something that you hadn’t faced before, and again, there’s going to be different challenges that are going to go along with this, and HazMat is definitely one of those, so again man, you’re killing it. I’m in suspense man, tell me more, tell me more.

Justin Fryer:

So yeah man, again we were talking about you’re gonna have to find a water supply. We were fortunate enough on this incident that we were in a neighborhood and we happen to have a hydrant right there and in good flow. It’s somewhere in a rural area you’re going to have to consider dump tanks, water shuttles for drafting.

Jason Harris:

Yeah, I mean it just and I mean and again, as I’ve stated before, it’s just so mind-boggling. With that being said, because it’s a car fire, we’re typically responding with that single engine company response, and again depending upon where it is, if you’re on the highway, of course you’re gonna have blocking and all those things, but I mean typically, an engine response that has a thousand gallon tank, 1500 gallon tank, something like this, we’re going to go through and if we don’t have anything extraordinary, hey that’s going to be plenty of water for us to do with foam applications and everything else. Man, we’re going to hopefully be able to hit a home run in 99.9% of the time, we extinguish the car fire, we you know we cleanup we turn it over to the wrecker service, and we go back to the station and we’re prepared for the next one and man as you just stated, my goodness you know dump tanks and tankers and again Jason, you and I had the conversation about this where we talk about where is the nearest highway, or where is the nearest hydrant on Highway 6, or on I-10,  I mean wow, where is our nearest water supply. You’re talking about shuttling operations and it’s just such a different tactic that it’s hard to understand because it’s just not something that we that we’ve had to deal with.

Jason Loyd:

Well Jason. I can tell you right now, in our volunteer fire department this is going to be a struggle for us, because we don’t have hydrants in every neighborhood and so if we need this type of water, we’re going to have to set this up right away. One of the things this has brought to light is that we’re looking at our own SOP’s because you mentioned earlier that a lot of departments aren’t prepared for this and it’s something that we don’t have an SOP for.

Jason Harris:

And I mean, Justin correct me if I’m wrong here, but know you guys in your department and you know the thousands upon thousands of fire departments out there are gonna have standard operating procedures, or standard operating guidelines, with regards to vehicle fires. And again, as we talk about bread and butter operations, hey we’re gonna assess the scene size up the scene, you know create our safe zones. You know we’re going to wear our full protective clothing with regards to breathing apparatus, and respiratory protection and then of course, adequate firefighting extinguishment capability, inch and three-quarter lying on the ground. Our normal but again but that’s our normal vehicle fire, and when I say normal, that’s a typical vehicle fire type of SOP or SOG with regards to this man it’s a game changer.

Justin Fryer:

I don’t mean not to cut you off but, it taxed us in more ways than one, because obviously with your firefighting, we were able to catch a water supply. The other thing to think about is, with your normal car fire, and again we use the word normal, but with what we’re trained on with your basic hydrocarbon fueled vehicle, is with normal car fires maybe you use a bottle, maybe two and you go fight this fire. With this because it’s such a long ongoing operation, I can tell you in just a segue real quick that this call dropped at 9:30 p.m. We were the first engine on scene we didn’t get our truck back in service until 6 a.m., so that’s how long we were out there. So you can imagine the amount of bottles that we breathed through. We ran out of bottles and we had to have a battalion chief shuttle us more bottles, so you’re using obviously your firefighting equipment water, but even your breathing air, because the toxic stuff that’s in the air, and it’s such an ongoing operation, you just you’ve got all these things to think about. Your logistics are a nightmare.

Jason Harris:

Well, and again, I’m still not gonna steal your thunder, but right here in the center of the of the page, it basically talks about these battery fires can take up to 24 hours to extinguish. I mean seriously  that to me just is unheard of, just because that’s just not something that we’re accustomed to. Again, the suspense is killing me and I know that the audience wants to know too. Drop the bomb and tell us how many gallons of water Justin.

Justin Fryer:

Yeah, so we ended up, and to just take one little small step back, I did mention that the car’s still low to the ground, so we ended up the way that we found to access that panel was we ended up using a set of hydraulic spreaders and we were able to get underneath it and find a good lift point, which on a Tesla was kind of a challenge because we’re used to your basic frame car or your sub compact cars. A Tesla’s a little bit different. I can say that about six inches behind the rear tire, and about a foot in, I found a good lifting point that did work, so again we’re in mud. I kind of found the bottom of the mud and I was able to get about six to eight inches of lift on that Tesla, and of course, being a good trained fireman, we lifted an inch, we cribbed an inch, and we were able to get our hydraulic tools back out of there. So yeah, did what we were able to set up a blitz fire and we flowed what we calculated to be about 25,000 to 26,000 gallons of water with Blitzfire.

Jason Harris:

Wow yeah, and again two things jump out okay, with your story here. Two things jump out at me. If we’re taking a hydraulic rescue tool to a to a vehicle that’s involved in fire, typically there’s one of two things that have happened. We need quick access to the engine compartment, and especially with the advances in electric tools how easy is that versus going and getting a K-12 or going so hood access I get, you know what I mean  quick extraction of a patient you know we may not be able to get you know so hey we’ve got a life over limb here hey we throw a rescue tool at it you know we’re extinguishing fire we’re cutting someone you know to get them out of the environment those are the two things I would never you know what I mean like you’re talking about we’re using it to lift the vehicle so we can gain access you know what I mean so we can gain access to a fire that we can’t reach and I mean that just again it just messes you know from a firefighting standpoint and we’ve all got you know we’ve all got years of service in the business and you know you just go wow I mean again another challenge you know another challenge with this incident.

Justin Fryer:

Oh I’m telling so yeah once we finally were able to get under it get our hydraulic tool back out of there because obviously those things aren’t cheap and chief wanted us to make sure we took care of that.

Jason Harris:

Sure

Justin Fryer:

Yeah, we ended up leaving that Blitzfire sitting there flowing for at least a couple hours

Jason Harris:

And a Blitzfire, and again man a Blitzfire on a car fire wow.

Justin Fryer:

And what was interesting is, traditionally what we’re taught is okay. We remove one element from the fire tetrahedron and that’ll cool it or that’ll put the fire out. This was interesting because it basically was generating its own heat, it was an exothermic reaction and because of that, nothing we were doing was stopping it. We were having a hard time removing that element from the reaction and the only thing that works is that you just got to keep flowing water and eventually you’ll cool it to the point where it stops off- gassing, but man I can tell you every time one of those batteries pops off it’s a blowtorch coming out at you, and the fire at that point there was nothing inside the  passenger compartment of the vehicle. Everything was up underneath it and it would just shoot out at you, so imagine your head’s down there working this this set of spreaders and here comes a blow torch.

Jason Harris:

Well yeah, I mean it’s just, and again I threw up another slide straight out of the erg right here talking about that and you just and again you just you brought those things up I mean look at the toxic vapors that these burning batteries are going to release you know and the volatility of those you know what I mean just looking yeah and I mean and wow you know and like you said you’re in this environment you’re right there at it and I mean this is a blowtorch that typically you know I mean think about it you know and like you said go back to the basic principles of the fire triangle the fire tetrahedron we’re doing that we’re doing these things and the fire is still burning you know we’re still you know we’re still not you know getting that extinguishment and so to me man that that that’s where we’re at right now and your story is so I mean provides so much real life you know and real-time information that you know that that it just to me like I said rings an alarm here that you know this is a situation where this isn’t going away anytime soon all of us out here know take a look around you and look how many more electric vehicles are on the road today than say five years ago ten years where I mean we’re getting to this point and again the things that you’re talking about I mean are just you know amazing in the fact of what you know of what you and your  you know and your engine company and your department had to deal with.

Justin Fryer:

Yes sir yes sir no it I think we all took something away from it I think we all  well I know we all took something away from it but I thought you know you almost you had to kind of look in a mirror and adapt and overcome from your failures as a firefighting operation is happening and you’re kind of okay this isn’t working so we kind of had to change and roll with it and you know kind of you had to you had to put your ego to the side for a second and just okay well you know our traditional methods aren’t working here and  you know we asked for help for our HazMat guys they kind of guided us in that man you know copious amounts of water that’s what it’s going to take and man they’re not kidding when they say it you know like I said 25,000 – 26,000 gallons and just hours of applying it you know.

Jason Harris:

And I mean and again and just with that you know with that with those firefighting with those firefighting tactics in mind and as you said you know you’ve responded to an incident like this it’s on your radar now and again this is that training part this is that knowledge is power piece and I think this is what’s vital about this podcast is that we have to bring it to the forefront and we have to talk about it and what’s what it what a lot of times is hard for us as firefighters to do and like you said you know we had to go you guys had to go back and had a little gut check moment of wow wait a minute we thought we were prepared and I mean man what a you know what a situation when you when you find yourself in that and you go man that’s just something that we weren’t prepared for we weren’t and now it’s the second piece you know it’s the second piece to the equation now or the second piece to the puzzle is now we’ve got to prepare ourselves you know what I mean we’ve got to prepare and you know we’re talking about you know case studies and this just isn’t specific to one geographic area this is happening all over the you know all over the country you know like you said you know in the United States you know it’s not just us you know across the border in Canada internationally I mean these things are happening every day and again it’s up to us to again bring these instances like you know like you were up against and be able to take this topic and bring it you know to the forefront you know and be able to talk about it discuss it and like I said you know hopefully bring that that sense of knowledge and power you know and the techniques and things that we need to do you know out there in the real world  man.

Jason Loyd:

Justin man I can’t thank you enough for coming on here and doing this today because really it’s about going home at the end of the shift you know I know that you also mentioned when we talked about doing this podcast beforehand that you tried to use two extinguishers which we would typically do before we get stuff set up and I think the words you use was we put out two extinguishers that laughed at us and the fire just came right back so with those challenges is your department attacking this fire different or since you’ve been on one of these fires would you approach this differently in the future.

Justin Fryer:

You know I think to answer your question would we attack it differently I think knowing what we know now and we would just know that big water is going to be what we’re going to have to get so you know if we have to lay a mile a five inch to do it then you know that’s what we’ll do but yeah I think that we know that it’s just it’s just going to take a lot of water you know so maybe the dry chems aren’t going to work your CO2’s aren’t going to work I don’t know that we even attempt that next time I think the big thing is let’s get access to that that whole undercarriage however you got to do it and then just get ready to flow water.

Jason Harris:

Well and again and as you stated and I’m bringing up another slide here from the Chevy emergency response guide and it’s walking right into what you just said you know in this second bullet right here you know use copious amounts of water to cool the battery do not use ABC dry chemical extinguishers because it will not extinguish a battery fire and as you’re sitting here now we’re sitting here talking about in the podcast enough to make light of it I mean we’re not like you know we’re not laughing I mean this is a serious incident and if we would have known that you know what I mean just knowing that ahead of time.

Justin Fryer:

Absolutely, this would have been totally different sometimes all you can do is kind of kind of laugh at yourself you know I agree with you there and in the moments you know one thing I’ll tell you and I don’t mind admitting I don’t mind being transparent there was a point where we had it out you know we the car was out it wasn’t burning I think I even had my air pack off and sitting on the ground and we just that smoke started to kind of roll out from under it and it got more and more intense and before we knew it you could you could hear it sounded kind of like a like a gas release and then here came like a torch right after it.

Jason Harris:

Yeah and then here it comes right.

Jason Loyd:

That’s interesting so you could hear it before it lit off.

Justin Fryer:

Absolutely, and even when you’re right there on it because we would do kind of like you would think with like an LPG type fire, where you’re trying to capture it and then hone in on it. So when one of those would pop off that’s kind of what we would do. We’d kind of come with a wide angle cone and maybe try to just hold the fire off of us, and that was before we had lifted it and when we were still just trying to fight it thinking we can make progress with the hand line. But absolutely yeah you can you can hear it and it does it sounds like a pressurized gas release and then you can hear that that sound that we all know well you know that whoosh.

Jason Harris:

Sure

Justin Fryer:

You know and you know yeah.

Jason Harris:

You know what’s coming you guys know what’s coming. Absolutely there it is.

Jason Loyd:

Thank you for that insight that’s valuable information absolutely man.

Jason Harris:

Absolutely. Well listen man, just again want to say thank you. Thank you to Jason for putting this podcast on, Justin thank you man for your insight and I mean I think this is extremely valuable. I mean I’ve learned a ton from listening to you talk and I think again we’re where we are with this, situation and the more that these vehicles are going to be hitting the roadways, we have to step up, we have to educate and we’ve got to make sure that, again as you said, we don’t want our fellow firefighters to find themselves in a situation like this where they were not prepared, and you know preparation is always huge. Like I said, as you stated, we went at it with the same strategies and tactics the bread and butter that we’ve that we’ve always done, and we found out extremely quickly that this was going to be a different situation, and with that being said, I think again this is extremely important information that we need to you know, that we need to get out. Not only in a podcast, but in a workshop, and continue to educate and I’m just going to leave you with thanking you all again.  I’m just going to leave you with learning is key. I mean, continue to learn, stay safe out there. Again everybody goes home, so listen thank you again for your insight Jason, thank you for putting the podcast together and again, a really great topic and again lots of good conversation.

Jason Loyd:

I echo the same and thank you, and this is so important. This is why TEEX is going to put out a one-hour curriculum, of course and discuss this more, because it’s about first responder safety we’re going to be on these incidents a lot more. Thank you everybody. Greatly appreciate it, great topic. Thank you for listening to the Public Sector Programs podcast series brought to by the Emergency Services Training Institute a division of The Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. If you have any questions or ideas for future episodes, please contact Training Manager Jason Loyd at jason.loyd@teex.tamu.edu or visit TEEX.org at www.teex.org for training near you.