Metro Detroit emergency officials prepare for possibility of electric vehicle accidents

Electric vehicle fires can cause unique problems

By Rod Meloni - Reporter, CFP ®, Derick Hutchinson

DETROIT - The march of time is bringing us the electric car. It's no longer a science experiment, as there are electric cars, particularly Teslas, all over town.

But any car can have an accident, and electric vehicles are a new challenge for firefighters and it can be dangerous, as well.

Electric cars run on lithium batteries, roughly the same batteries as cellphones, but they are hundreds of times larger and come with enormous challenges for everyone involved in an accident.

Last month in Fort Lauderdale, a Tesla slammed into a palm tree and burned. Firefighters used fire extinguishers initially, but they didn't work. It took a lot of water, and the driver died in the flames.

Officials towed the vehicle to a salvage yard, and it caught on fire. Firefighters put out the fire and were called back hours later.

Last year in California, there was a similar incident, and firefighters were called back again for a tow yard fire.

Are Metro Detroit fire departments ready for this type of incident?

"The technology is advancing so quickly, the emergency services can't keep up with the changes," Troy Deputy Fire Chief Chuck Riesterer said.

Each car company with an electric vehicle on the road offers online instructions on how to deal with a fire in their vehicles.

"There is a device that will increase the voltage on the vehicle that runs that increased voltage through orange cabling," Riesterer said. "The fire service trained not to cut that cabling because you could be dealing with in excess of 400 volts."

Yet there are places where the cabling can be cut, but firefighters need to know where.

"You can disconnect it once you affect the battery," Riesterer said. "You don't know what is going to happen. If something grounds that battery, a foreign agent introduced could continue to burn."

Troy officials are training the mostly volunteer department personnel for dealing with fires on electric vehicles. Detroit officials said they have conducted an electric vehicle firefighting class, but the state has no training standards yet for this.

Firefighters advise calling 911 when there's an electric vehicle crash rather than jumping in and trying to help a victim.

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