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Fires in Electric vehicles

Fires in electric vehicles (EVs) are very rare. As with many new technologies, manufacturers try to ensure the highest standards of safety and efficiency. BFRS are working hard to improve our knowledge and understanding of incidents involving electric vehicles to ensure that we remain prepared.

We expect to see many more electric vehicles on our roads, driveways and in our car parks as ownership expands. BFRS have an implementation plan for the most current National Operational Guidance and monitor National Operational Learning in order to better learn from these types of fire, we have also attended incidents locally and learnt lessons from these.

One of the first areas BFRS have worked on was identifying multi-storey car parks following a serious fire in Merseyside. We now understand where these are and indeed which ones have charging points, SSRI is stored on MDTs so our Firefighters can quickly identify areas of charging vehicles.

Our Road Traffic Collision Reduction Officer, Crew Commander Nicholas Clements, has been liaising with the Fire Service College, and is considering any local arrangements we need to make. We are shortly to introduce a local practice for any incident, road traffic collision or fire involving an EV.  Following such an occurrence, one of our attending fire engines will follow the recovery vehicle back to the unloading point at their yard to assist with any fires. Locally, London Luton Airport have also introduced some changes and will commit an appliance to their two new multi storey car parks if a fire were to occur. Luton and Stopsley Fire stations exercise regularly with colleagues at London Luton Airport.

BFRS have also developed information for all fire engines which enable us to identify what model of vehicle is involved in an incident, including EVs, where the battery is and where the isolation switches are.

BFRS are carrying out a full risk cover review, as part of this we will consider any emerging technology and how best we can respond and work with manufacturer to ensure safety and learning.

Finally, with a little bit of smart partnership working, and listening to partners and experts BFRS will remain in a strong position to mitigate any risks and deal with most occurrences we might realistically face.

Residents should feel confident to own and keep one of these vehicles as they really are at the cutting edge of technology.


The below information has been adapted:

Electric Vehicle Fires should we be concerned?

As more and more people purchase electric vehicles (EVs) there is a growing number of concerns about what happens if these vehicles set on fire. Air Quality News reporter Pippa Neill has set out to debunk the myths and understand the true risks of electric vehicle fires.

The electric vehicle market has seen exponential growth in the past decade.

Almost 100,000 new EVs are expected to be registered in the UK this year alone, and in April 2020, EV sales surpassed petrol and diesel vehicles for the first time ever.

Despite the undoubtable benefits of electrifying our transport fleet – from reduced air pollution to enabling us to achieve the essential net-zero targets – among the EV community there is a growing sense of concern about the dangers and apparent spontaneity of EV fires.

Causes of an EV fire

Electric vehicles are powered most commonly by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The first lithium-ion battery was invented in the 1990s and it was used to power a car in the early 2000s.

In comparison, petrol and diesel vehicles have been around for well over 100 years, so comparatively we are yet to obtain the same data and understanding when it comes to product safety.

Fundamentally, electric vehicles are extremely safe, but the main danger occurs when the lithium-ion battery is damaged, which might happen if it is exposed to extreme heat or something penetrates the battery cell wall.

Professor Paul Christensen from the University of Newcastle is an expert in the field of EV fires and explained to Air Quality News: ‘Lithium-ion batteries are amazing, and the reason they’re amazing is because they can store a huge amount of energy in a very small space.

‘But naturally, that energy will try and get out.

‘If the battery is exposed to excessive heat, or there is a penetration in the battery case, then you get an internal short circuit.

‘This short circuit causes what is called Joule heating, this is when the electricity passing through causes heat and you cannot get rid of the heat as fast as you are generating it.

‘Then because of this heat, a chemical reaction takes place which generates more heat, which then causes the chemical reaction to go even faster, and as you can see it’s a vicious cycle.

This is a process called thermal runaway and it can lead to ignition, or in some cases even explosion.’

How often do they occur?

Although these fires do present a real danger, fortunately for us they remain very rare.

Data obtained by Air Quality News through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request revealed that in 2019 the London Fire Brigade dealt with just 54 electric vehicle fires compared to 1,898 petrol and diesel fires.

Similarly, so far in 2020, the fire services have dealt with 1,021 petrol and diesel fires and just 27 electric vehicle fires.

The main risks

Although these fires remain rare, when they do occur, they can be extremely dangerous.

During an electric vehicle fire, over 100 organic chemicals are generated, including some incredibly toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide – both of which are fatal to humans.

According to George Maloney, sub-officer in the operational team at the London Fire Brigade, the fire services are prepared for dealing with these toxic gases: ‘When dealing with any sort of vehicle fire, the fire brigade will always wear full PPE with respiratory equipment.

‘As far as we know, this seems to provide adequate protection against these toxic gases.

‘However, this level of protection isn’t necessarily available for all members of the public or for individuals from other public services.

It’s a dynamic situation in that we are still learning about how EV fires behave, but the guidance is consistent, always wear full protective gear.’

Putting out the fire

For the fire brigade, the real problem when it comes to an EV fire is with trying to put it out.

The services have two main options, let the fire burn out or extinguish it.

The obvious choice seems to be to extinguish the fire, however many EV manufacturers actually advise for a controlled burn. This is where the fire services allow the vehicle to burn out while they focus on protecting the surrounding area.

 Once the fire has been successfully put out, the problem for the fire brigade is not over.

Electric vehicle fires are known to reignite hours, days or even weeks after the initial event, and they can do so many times.

Not only does this pose a safety issue, but it also poses a legal issue: recovery firms are increasingly concerned about dealing with electric vehicles.

Preparing for these fires

Fire services across the country are working hard to improve their knowledge and understanding of these fires to ensure that they are prepared as we inevitably see more EVs on the roads.

Services internationally have also been trialling new alternative options to extinguish the fires, for example, a full submersion of the battery, however, at the moment the success of this method remains uncertain.

Effective risk management

When we are highlighting the risks of EV fires, it is important to position this against the backdrop of the current risks of air pollution.

Globally, air pollution is responsible for 7 million premature deaths every single year and if we fail to decarbonise the planet, then the impacts of climate change on the global population will be catastrophic.

To date, fatalities from electric vehicle fires are few and far between.

As stated by Professor Paul Christensen, like with most things there is always a risk, but we should not let this risk deter us from transitioning towards a fleet of electric vehicles, rather it should encourage us to accelerate our understanding so we can avoid and mitigate the risks in the best possible way.

‘As a civilisation, we are very good at managing risk,’ said Paul.

‘Yes, these risks are very real, but if we understand them, then we can manage them.

‘If we are going to decarbonise the planet and reach the targets set by the Prime Minister – which we absolutely should – then we are going to have to learn how to deal with EV fires.

‘In general terms, the fire services are not yet fully prepared, but they are working hard to understand the new risks. Fundamentally, they are going to need a lot more help and funding from the government.

‘Various solutions have been suggested, for example, a water lance that floods the battery or a fire blanket to cover the vehicle. But I think the general consensus is that it’s not going to be one single product or solution, it’s going to have to be a system that involves both procedure and product.

‘The last thing I want to do is demonise lithium-ion batteries, they are amazing, we’ve seen no battery like them before and they are essential to the decarbonisation of the planet, but with the plans to ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles creeping closer and closer much more research needs to be done to ensure safety across the board.’

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