As the shift toward more all-electric and hybrid vehicles accelerates, office buildings with parking garages face a growing and little-understood threat from electric vehicle car fires. EV fires pose far more serious threats and challenges than regular gas vehicle fires. They burn much hotter for far longer. Extinguishing them is vastly more difficult. And many fire departments are limited in their response capabilities.
The lithium-ion batteries that power all-electric and hybrid cars (and our cell phones, laptops, and other electronics) are generally safe. But when they fail or their cases are ruptured, they can quickly produce intense fires. While EVs do not experience fires at a higher rate than gas-powered cars, some 130 million EVs and hybrids are projected to be on the roads worldwide by 2030 (and 672 million by 2050), up from just 3 million in 2017. More EVs means more EV accidents and fires.
Fires in electric vehicles are unlike those in traditional gas-powered cars.
- Extinguishing an EV car fire usually requires jacking up or flipping the car on its side in order to spray water on the batteries and electrical distribution system. Difficult under normal circumstances, this can be nearly impossible in a tightly packed parking garage.
- Extinguishing a serious EV fire requires enormous amounts of water, in the range of 3,000 gallons per hour for many hours. Draining away this much water, which could be contaminated with lithium and other chemicals, could present a whole set of additional challenges in a below-grade garage.
- EV fires can take a week to extinguish. Stranded energy in damaged EV car batteries can reignite many days after an initial fire is extinguished. To be safe, fully charged electric vehicles that experience a fire are often submerged in a tank of water for up to a week. (In Norway, firefighters pull a flatbed truck carrying a tank of water alongside the damaged EV, lift it with a crane, submerge it in the tank, and haul it away.)
- Electrocution is a major risk factor. Current EVs can carry 100 kilowatts of stored energy – enough to power a typical US home for several days. After a crash or a significant fire, simply touching the central high-voltage electrical wiring would prove instantly fatal.
While traffic collisions are the main cause of EV fires, ignitions also occur from simple battery failures. Earlier this year, General Motors recalled 142,000 electric vehicles and warned owners of certain models not to park them in garages overnight until the batteries were replaced following several spontaneous fires during overnight recharging. Audi and Hyundai have also had to issue recalls to fix problems that led to fires. Several widely publicized fires in Teslas prompted an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Office buildings with attached parking garages, especially those with EV charging stations, should update their emergency response plans to take into account this new risk. Building staff, especially parking attendants and engineers, need to be trained on the very different threats posed and responses required. Buildings may also want to consult with their local fire departments to understand their capabilities for fighting an EV fire inside the building.
For help in updating your emergency preparedness program to reflect these new and unique risks, contact AK Preparedness at firstname.lastname@example.org.