CARL JUNCTION, Mo.— As electric vehicles (EVs) become increasingly popular with consumers, it’s a good bet that you’ll start to see an increasing number of them on roads across the U.S. However, one major component of EVs that makes them so attractive to car buyers — can provide unique and often dangerous challenges to firefighters — if that component catches fire.
Most electric vehicles today use a pack of lithium-ion batteries. That single pack contains more than 2,000 lithium-ion cells — all working together to store electricity that’s used by the car’s motor to accelerate.
Carl Junction Fire Chief, Joe Perkins says the difference is night-and-day, when fighting a gasoline powered, combustion engine vehicle fire, versus a fire that engulfs (or threatens to engulf) the EVs lithium-ion battery pack.
You Can’t Put “The Wet Stuff On The Red Stuff”
“When fighting fires, it’s always been like this: ‘You put the wet stuff, on the red stuff.’ So, our go-to method to extinguishing fires, is the use of water under high pressure, mainly because water is so plentiful, and it does what we need it to do: Quickly put out fires. But now, the problem with fighting an electric vehicle fire is that water doesn’t do the trick. In fact, using water to douse a EV fire can cause a couple different issues that can make firefighting a lot worse, before any progress starts to show. It’s a whole new animal to fight, when you’re dealing with electric vehicle fires,” said Perkins.
As more EVs hit the road, and that number expected to significantly increase in the coming years, there’s an increasing possibility that of one of these vehicles, if not more, will catch fire — presenting new difficulties and dangers for those called in to extinguish the flames.
“When lithium-ion batteries catch fire, it’s a whole different ball game when it comes to fighting that fire, mostly because of the chemical makeup of these batteries that contain thousands of lithium-ion cells. Extinguishing EV battery fires — or attempting to, especially with water — can have dangerous consequences. For example, most of the water run-off from fighting these fires is toxic to people and the environment. When that run-off isn’t properly contained, it can easily seep into the ground water — creating problems on a much larger scale,” said Perkins.
Extinguishing EV Fires With New Firefighting Agent
If crews with the Carl Junction Fire Department (CJFD) are called to a fire involving an electric vehicle, Perkins assures they’ll show up prepared, thanks to a new firefighting agent called F-500. Hazard Control Technologies, a manufacturer of fire suppression products, produces and sells the F-500 Encapsulator Agent (F-500 EA). According to the company, F-500 EA, “is made to cool a fire and the surrounding structures, with the ability to absorb 6-10 times more heat energy than plain water, without the creation of super-heated steam.” Hazard Control Technologies claims, “the firefighting agent creates ‘chemical cocoons’ that encapsulates fuels — therefor rendering them nonflammable and non-ignitable.”
“One reason why we went with F-500 EA over any other product, is because it’s biodegradable, which is a big deal to me. A big alternative to F-500 is firefighting foam. Its been around for several decades now. But what the firefighting industry currently claims, is different foams can cause cancer,” said Perkins.
One of the more important features of the F-500 firefighting agent, Perkins claims, is it’s ability to stop the chain reaction of fire spreading through several lithium batteries — the power source for most EVs today. The CJFD currently has eight, five gallon buckets of F-500 EA. This initial investment came with a $1,000 price tag. It’s a heavy price to pay, stated Perkins, but one that’s necessary.
“As a department, we want this stuff because it’s an encapsulating agent, so it really does what it says it’s going to do,” said Perkins.
Water And Lithium-Ion Battery Fires Don’t Mix Well
“In Phoenix, Arizona, they tried to fight an EV fire with just water. They ended up dumping like 10,000 gallons on one car! Compare that to a vehicle fire our department was dispatched to just the other day. That fire started in the engine compartment of a Ford F-250. Once we arrived on scene, our crew put the whole thing out with 100 to 150 gallons of water,” Perkins said. “That just goes to show the tremendous volume of water it takes to fight almost any EV fire,” he continued.
When fires do occur, electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries, burn hotter, faster, and require new, advanced firefighting tactics to be completely extinguished. Fire Chief Perkins claims the massive amount of water that’s needed to fight these fires, isn’t practical or readily available.
“If you use water to put out a lithium battery fire in an electric vehicle, instead of a firefighting agent like F-500 EA, you’ll cause the fire to spread rapidly. You’ll also and significantly increase the amount of cancer-causing smoke this type of fire produces,” said Perkins.
Even though electric vehicle fires can and do happen, there’s at least one study that suggests they are less common than what many people have come to believe. A 2022 report by the online car insurance marketplace, AutoinsuranceEZ says electric vehicles only have a 0.03% chance of igniting, compared to a 1.5% chance by vehicles with the traditional internal combustion engine. On the other hand, hybrid electric vehicles, which have a high voltage battery, and an internal combustion engine, have a 3.4% likelihood of a vehicle fire, according to their study.