Aussie Firefighters call for government action on EV fire hazards

Written by Callum Hunter

Electric vehicles and battery energy storage systems can pose serious risks for first responders, community and environment

Career firefighters will urge federal and state governments to develop policies to regulate the management of risks and hazards associated with electric vehicles (EVs) and battery energy storage systems (BESS).

The United Firefighters Union of Australia (UFUA) National Committee of Management, which passed the resolution today, said the batteries in EVs and solar power storage units pose unique risks to first responders, the wider community and the environment.

UFUA secretary Greg McConville drew attention to these risks in a media release issued this afternoon, emphasising the fact a battery fire can require up to 22 times the amount of water needed to extinguish as a ‘typical’ car fire.

“When the integrity of lithium batteries is compromised, the energy they store is released as heat, known as ‘thermal runaway’, and this can cause fires which are extremely difficult to extinguish while releasing an extraordinary array of deadly toxic gases,” he said.

“A typical car fire would require less than 1400 litres of water to extinguish, but an EV battery fire in an electric vehicle may require up to 30,000 litres of water.

“That massive amount of water can also be highly contaminated and would need to be captured and treated, presenting significant logistical problems for fire services and governments.”

Some of the toxins released in an EV or BESS fire include carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen fluoride and cobalt, all of which are dermally absorbed (through the skin) – in addition to being inhaled – with no proven PPE to combat them.

McConville drew attention to two now disabled firefighters who suffered Colbalt poisoning in Victoria while responding to an electric vehicle fire and said the risks are elevated exponentially when it comes to structural BESS fire.

“Many homes are installing lithium batteries as part of their solar panel energy systems and BESS are being installed in underground carparks and in apartment blocks,” he said.

“Fire services currently have limited oversight or approval of BESS in residential apartment blocks and the difficulty in extinguishing these types of fires makes the location of these batteries highly problematic for firefighters.

“These toxins also present a major risk to other emergency services personnel such as police and ambulance officers, bystanders and the broader community and as such, every possible measure must be undertaken to mitigate their impact.”

As a result, the UFUA is calling on all governments to develop proper regulation, policy, training and education programs to mitigate the risks associated with EV and BESS fires in collaboration with firefighting bodies around the country.

While we wait for the pleas to be heard by the relevant authorities, it seems Australia’s peak independent crash testing body, ANCAP, is already on the case with ‘fire risk and thermal runaway in electric vehicles’ being one of the key aspects of future crash testing protocols.

According to the just-released Future View on Testing & Assessment 2030 report, ANCAP will “continue to encourage manufacturers to provide post-crash rescue information through provision of rescue sheets in accordance with ISO 17840 which will be made available through the ANCAP RESCUE app”.

“Enhancements to the available information such as managing of thermal runaway incidents will be included if and when the ISO standard is amended accordingly,” the report reads.

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Header image: ARS Technica

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