Batteries have presented complications for first responders to car crashes since plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles arrived on public roads.
Michael Gorin, 35, emerging issues program manager at the National Fire Protection Association, has helped the organization craft guidance for first responders since 2010. With the introduction of new EV models and bigger batteries, that guidance continues to evolve.
He spoke with Deputy Mobility Editor Pete Bigelow about the key issues first responders face when handling these cars. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: Nine years into dealing with these issues, what are the biggest hurdles?
A: One is just the identification of a hybrid or electric vehicle. It sounds simple. But the odds you come up on a crash scene and say, "That's a hybrid or EV" is not reality. You're not going to find a firefighter who says, "I can tell that's a Ford hybrid." That's a big challenge, especially with hybrid versions of traditional vehicles. So identification is a huge piece of this.
The other theme right now is bigger batteries that are giving more range. They meet consumer needs, but in doing so, the battery packs are increasing from four to five times the energy density they had a decade ago.
Q: There have been a few instances where a battery fire was extinguished at the scene, only to reignite days later. How do you address that?
We've worked with NHTSA to develop some guidance specific to that, and it's a recommendation that we make sure these vehicles are placed outdoors. You never want to bring them to an indoor facility. You want to keep them at least 50 yards away from any structure because of that possibility it could reignite.
Q: You recommend water instead of a foam to help extinguish fires. Why?
The main reason is it's the most readily available fluid or extinguishing agent that fire departments have. For that reason, it's our recommendation. There are some other solutions that can fight these battery fires, and we're not against them. It's more that for some volunteer fire department in some community out in Iowa, we know they'll have water. Another aspect: Water has cooling characteristics, and that's what you want with a lithium ion fire. Copious amounts of water.
Q: As automakers experiment with batteries that are not lithium ion, does that present additional complications? Do they have to be handled differently?
There are different chemistries and makeups, and to some degree, different reactions to failure and different ways they fail. But generally speaking, the tactics are pretty much the same, unless they're working with something really groundbreaking. But right now, that's the predominant chemistry, and they have the same general characteristics.
Q: You started looking at EVs 10 years ago. What's on your horizon for a decade from now?
A: Autonomous vehicles are definitely something we're looking at. There have been some instances of first responders being struck by AVs or vehicles with automated features, so that's an immediate thing we're looking at.
And we're exploring [electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft]. We haven't seen schematics of a system that will fly, but we want to know how this will impact existing structures that might be retrofitted as heliports. Or if they build a heliport, what are the fire safety requirements? We're just starting to look at that.