Electric cars pose unique challenge: Local firefighters have been training for new situations

As more and more electric and hybrid cars are driving on Johnson County roads, firefighters face a whole set of different challenges from traditional, gas-powered vehicles.

When a fire needs to be extinguished from an electric or hybrid vehicle, firefighters need to use significantly more water. If someone becomes trapped in one of these vehicles after a crash, careful procedures have to be followed to get them out so that firefighters aren’t harmed by high-voltage cables and batteries.

Johnson County fire departments said they have yet to deal with a fire or extraction involving an electric or hybrid car, but firefighters know it is only a matter of time because of the increasing popularity of the vehicles. Vehicle registration data of some of most common electric and hybrid car models shows that Johnson County has gone from at least one electric car in 2012 to having at least 47 electric and hybrid cars registered in 2017, according to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

That’s why local departments have begun training and preparing on how to handle the situations that can come up with those vehicles.

For a standard car fire, firefighters might expect to use somewhere around 500 gallons of water to extinguish it, said Greenwood Fire Division Chief of Training Brian Johns. With a fire involving a battery for an electric or hybrid car, the amount water needed is significantly larger — more than 2,600 gallons — due to the higher temperatures of the fire, he said.

“It takes copious amounts of water,” he said.

Greenwood Fire has trucks that carry 500 and 750 gallons of water, so if there is no nearby fire hydrant, multiple trucks would be needed and other agencies would likely be brought in to assist. That would be the case if an electric or hybrid vehicle fire happened on Interstate 65 for example, he said.

One concern, specifically with Tesla cars, is that if the battery is not cooled off enough, the vehicle could re-ignite, either at the scene, while it is being towed away or when it is in storage, White River Fire Department training chief Dale Saucier said. The instructions their department has been given is to keep pouring water on the batteries for about 45 minutes after the fire has been extinguished, he said.

But another concern comes with rescuing people trapped in a crash involving an electric or hybrid car.

Firefighters face the risk of accidentally cutting into or damaging batteries and high-voltage cables during the rescue efforts, which could hurt the rescuers, Bargersville Fire Department Chief Jason Ramey said.

Another challenge for firefighters would be in stabilizing a car laying on its side, Saucier said.

Normally, the department would use support beams on the bottom of the car, but since that is where the batteries are located, they couldn’t place them there without running the risk of puncturing the batteries, causing fluids to leak, he said.

Because fire departments typically only practice rescues on older models of vehicles, firefighters haven’t had the chance to work on any electric or hybrid cars, Johns said.

That’s why the reference materials the department has on hand are so useful, he said.

Greenwood Fire keeps three books with instructions about every type of electric or hybrid car available, Johns said.

For example, if firefighters needed to rescue someone from a 2012 to 2014 Tesla, the book includes a warning that high voltage cables may remain energized for up to two minutes after being disabled. The book also has a reminder that, because the vehicle doesn’t have a combustion engine, the lack of noise from the vehicle doesn’t mean it is off. And it has pictures of where firefighters can cut cables that would disable the vehicle’s power systems and where batteries and high-voltage cables are located.

Many manufactures of electric and hybrid cars are now putting stickers and other markings to let firefighters know where cables are inside the car and where they can cut them to disable power, Johns said.

Firefighters also can use smartphone apps to get a view of the vehicle, and information about where they should and shouldn’t make cuts to extract someone, Ramey said.

The most important step is simply being prepared to recognize hybrid and electric cars and know the precautions that have to be taken, he said.

“The more they become popular, the more we will include them in our training,” Ramey said.

By the numbers

Electric and hybrid cars are beginning to become more popular in Johnson County. Here’s a look at how many of the most common models have been registered each year in the county:

2012: 1

2013: 5

2014: 10

2015: 15

2016: 21

2017: 47

Source: Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles

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Jacob Tellers is a reporter at the Daily Journal. He can be reached at jtellers@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2702.