Fire departments, emergency responders, insurance companies, consumers and others are ill-equipped to handle EV fires, safety experts say.
September 16, 2023 12:00 AM
Battery safety panel members were, from left, Ron Butler, CEO at Energy Storage Safety Products International; John Cassidy, fire protection specialist at the New York City Fire Department; Steve Drueke, founder at Battalion Response Consulting; Dalan Zartman, COO at Energy Security Agency; Elizabeth LaDow, community liaison at the U.S. Department of Transportation; and Dawn New, managing partner at New Dawn Solutions.
DETROIT — After Hurricane Idalia pummeled Florida in August, about 300 flood-damaged Teslas were sold during an insurance auction.
Within days, two burned to the ground, said Dalan Zartman, COO of Energy Security Agency, a Piqua, Ohio, company that trains first responders to combat EV fires.
Those developments underscored what Zartman and others on a panel last week at The Battery Show said is the most pressing issue with EV safety: Fire departments, emergency responders, insurance companies, consumers and others are ill-equipped to handle EV fires.
Safety was top of mind at the show, which attracted nearly 800 exhibitors to the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, northwest of Detroit. Almost every row on the convention floor showcased thermal management products.
Each panelist highlighted different areas in need of attention, but there were common denominators: Just about every entity involved in handling or caring for lithium ion batteries — consumers, technicians, emergency responders, companies that transport cars and cells — needs more information, more training and consistent standards.
The risk profile of a lithium ion battery differs based on each battery, said New York Fire Department Lt. John Cassidy. Older, damaged, defective and recalled batteries require different methods to extinguish than new batteries.
“Not only do responders need to learn how to deal with them, but so do contractors,” Cassidy said. “A lot of times these batteries are handled by general hazardous waste contractors with little to no experience with batteries.”
Regulations have not kept up with the technology, said Elizabeth LaDow, a transportation specialist from the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
LaDow: Rules are outdated.
“Our regulations were written back when we had button cells,” she said. The Transportation Department is working with automakers and battery manufacturers to create new safety standards, but the country is “so far behind,” she said.
Their comments echoed broader concerns from safety officials, who have battled fires in everything from cars to e-bikes. Concerns are not new: Two years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board said automakers needed to do a better job providing emergency responders with detailed information on their EVs.
Consumers can reduce fire risks on their own. Investigators have found in areas where there have been floods and storms, some EV owners left their vehicles plugged in, which may have started fires. Most homes don’t have smoke detectors in garages but should, especially where EVs are being charged, Cassidy said.
EV battery fires are more difficult to extinguish. Part of the reason is lithium ion batteries can reignite. And many first responders have to make snap decisions on how best to combat EV fires when they may not know the layout of the vehicle.
Dual motors, single motors and the different brands of EVs can change where the components are located, Zartman said. “It’s not easy to make the correct decision in 30 seconds when you arrive at a vehicle fire,” he said.
Companies offering battery safety products see progress.
“I would say batteries are maybe several orders of magnitude safer now than what there were even two or three years ago,” said David Miller, technical lead at Boyd Corp., a company that manufactures heat mitigation systems for battery packs.
“The industry is rapidly coming up with solutions to make them safer and safer. Everyone wants the safest battery.”