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Electric Vehicle Fires: Managing a New Risk for Hazmat Teams

Doug MayerBusiness Development Specialist, Fire Services June 01, 2023
electric-vehicle-fires-hazmat-car-R3It’s no secret that electronic vehicles (EVs) –including e-bikes and e-scooters—offer a compact, fast and energy-efficient way to get around cities. What’s less known is that their batteries can catch fire, introducing a new safety risk to communities and the first responders responsible for extinguishing them.

Electrical Vehicle Fires Hazmat Response

In responding to EV battery fires, connected multi-gas detectors have emerged as a game-changer. These devices leverage cloud-connectivity, integrated cellular or satellite functionality, location technology, customizable gas cartridges, and advanced data analytics. The result is enhanced situational awareness, improved response times, and comprehensive gas detection to get ahead of risk and prevent EV fires from escalating.

Usage of EVs continues to grow exponentially. So do the risks to first responders.

Unexpected, long-lasting hazardous off-gases

EVs generally run on lithium-ion batteries, and fires from these batteries produce gases not normally encountered during combustion engine fires like hydrogen fluoride (HF). And once a lithium-ion battery catches fire, it can be difficult to extinguish and can burn—and generate hazardous off gases—for several hours and can even reignite after being put out (NBC News).

“This is a new hazard not seen in the industry to date and fire hazmat teams right now run the risk of not having the right gas detection equipment to properly protect them,” said Travis Rebello, Firefighter / HazMat Technician

“Knowing what gases are present allows us to make quick decisions that put their safety—and the safety of communities—first.”

Gas detection equipment that includes lower-explosive-limit molecular property spectrometer (LEL-MPS), hydrogen fluoride (HF), oxygen (O2), and carbon monoxide (CO) sensors that enable full situation awareness to adjust responses on the fly is a must-have.

Early detection critical

Hero-3In EVs, where the presence of volatile, potential ignition substances such as fuel or battery electrolytes can escalate a fire incident. Gas detectors with LEL-MPS sensors can provide an early warning system. These sensors detect the presence of flammable gases, like hydrogen and methane, and trigger an alarm, allowing responders to take immediate action to prevent further escalation. CO is also generated during heating and fire, providing pre-warning of a potential thermal runaway (i.e. when an incident occurs where one exothermal process triggers other processes, finally resulting in an uncontrollable increase in temperature).

Proactively monitor risk

If an EV battery is at risk of thermal runaway, it needs to be transported to a storage location or facility where gas levels can be continuously monitored to ensure they remain within a safe threshold. Connected area monitors, like the G7 EXO*, are ideal for this situation. They can be set up where the batteries are being stored and then gas levels can be continuously monitored from any remote location via an online dashboard. If gas levels rise above a set threshold, alarm notifications will be sent so that a response team can quell the situation before a fire occurs. And with a 100+ day battery life (or indefinitely with a solar panel), the area monitor can ensure the safety of the batteries’ storage for an extended period.

“Equipment that can detect precursor gases from battery failures is critical to being proactive in reducing the impact of EV fires,” said Bobby Salvesen, co-host of The Haz Mat Guys Podcast.

“Having the ability to directly measure potential gases present will allow members to know whether a situation is in the process of runaway or propagation or not.”


electric-vehicle-battery-fires-scooterManaging the response

As an EV fire unfolds, O2 sensors can identify oxygen-depleted or oxygen-enriched environments, which can significantly impact the spread and severity of a fire. O2 sensors can assist in evaluating the effectiveness of fire suppression systems, ensuring a safe environment for responders and civilians.

Also critical are HF sensors, specifically designed to detect these hazardous substances not normally encountered in other combustion engine fires.

“HF is a toxic and corrosive gas that poses severe health risks to both humans and the environment” said Salvesen.

“By integrating HF sensors into gas detection solutions, responders can quickly identify and mitigate the risks associated with HF gas, enhancing their safety and the effectiveness of fire response efforts.”

Four Critical Sensors to Enhance EV Fire Response
  1. LEL-MPS—specifically designed to detect flammable gases or vapors to get ahead of an explosion.
  2. CO—identifies presence of carbon monoxide gas to get ahead of a thermal runaway.
  3. O2—identifies oxygen-depleted or oxygen-enriched environment to plan fire suppression efforts.
  4. HF—gas hazard unique to EV battery fires which poses a severe health risk to people and the environment.


Flexible Equipment for the Situation

Given the multiple gas hazards present in EV fires, gas detection equipment that enables multiple sensor combinations and swappable cartridges offers the best protection, allowing first responders to quickly adapt to the situation on scene. Meters with the sensor set-up mentioned above can be an agile compliment to existing devices with the traditional LEL, CO, H2S and O2 configuration.

“Your standard 4 gas meter may not give you the whole picture in a battery event. A meter that has a different sensor configuration to measure flammability and the presence of these specific toxic gases will go a long way to ensuring members’ safety,” added Salvesen.

g7-multi-gas-hf-sensorFor example, Blackline Safety’s G7 wearable connected multi-gas detectors can detect up to five gases simultaneously (with a portfolio of up to 20 gases to choose from) with swappable cartridges that can be configured to match the situation or address evolving needs. They’re even hot-swappable, so they can be changed on the job or while in transit to a new incident site.

Real-Time Visibility, Reliable Connectivity

Cloud-connected equipment allows incident commanders to see what is happening in real-time—even from a remote command center —so they can make informed and data-driven safety decisions.

For example, instant alerts and notifications of location-stamped gas readings let incident commanders know exactly where gases are present and which personnel are at risk, allowing them to make quick decisions on where to direct responders and to take immediate action to prevent further escalation.

In areas where cellular connectivity is not always a reliable option—for example, an EV fire on a remote highway—satellite-connected multi-gas detectors are also readily available.

Data-Driven Incident Management

analytics-software-webpage-performanceIn summary, connected safety solutions are revolutionizing fire response in EV environments by enabling data-driven incident management informed by real-time understanding of gas levels, location of personnel, and the early detection of toxic substances or flammable gases. This data empowers incident commanders to make informed decisions about evacuation routes, resource allocation, and the selection of appropriate firefighting techniques.

In particular, gas detection solutions equipped with LEL-MPS, O2, CO, and HF sensors play a vital role in EV fire response. These sensors collectively provide early warning capabilities, enabling rapid detection and response to potential fire hazards. Responders can take immediate action to prevent the escalation of fire incidents and safeguard lives and property by promptly identifying flammable gases, oxygen levels, and toxic substances such as hydrogen fluoride.

*HF sensor currently not available with G7 EXO

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