How do firefighters put out an electric vehicle fire?

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

Electric vehicle fires have been making  the news lately, including a detached electric vehicle (EV) battery catching fire at Sydney Airport and a Tesla lithium big-battery fire at the Bouldercombe energy park in Queensland.

But when an EV battery catches fire, how do firefighters respond?

Firefighter Emma Sutcliffe from EV Fire Safe says it’s not easy and requires a specialised approach.

“We can put out a petrol or diesel car fire pretty quickly because what is burning is plastics and combustibles and sometimes the fuel.

“But we’ve been doing that now for 100 years – firefighters have been doing that for ages, so we know what to do. Electric vehicles are new.”

Sutcliffe spoke to Cosmos for our new Podcast series ‘Debunks,’ which for the first season examines the truth and lies around lithium batteries from numerous angles.

Sutcliffe says the first issue is the time. While a petrol or diesel car can be put out by firefighters in about 20 minutes, batteries can burn slower for a much longer period of time.

“In an electric vehicle, you might have 7000 battery cells and there’s a domino effect that occurs. So, it can take a long time to manage that incident. Typically, the rule of thumb is around three to five hours,” says Sutcliffe.

“As a firefighter, as soon as you realise you’re dealing with an electric vehicle battery fire, we need to establish water early. We need to ensure we’ve got breathing apparatus, more operators, we may need more water.”

“And there’s a number of ways we can manage that incident that’s being discussed globally.”

In some places around the world with more electric vehicles, firefighters have access to a type of skip bin filled with water into which the car is submerged.  

But in the meantime, Sutcliffe is teaching other firefighters how to deal with electric battery fires when they do come up.

“The technology has moved ahead so quickly, that there’s no fire agency in the world that’s developed what we call SOPs or standard operating procedures for managing electric vehicle fires yet,” she says.  

“A lot of firefighters are worried because we haven’t got this training, but it takes a little while for the training and the SOPs to develop, but there is information out there.”

But despite the news, how often do electric vehicle batteries catch fire? And is it more likely to happen then a petrol or diesel car?

Listen to the podcast Debunks to find out.  

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