'Our worst nightmares': Firefighters have serious concerns about electric vehicles

"As a firefighter, it's one of our worst nightmares."

As the country looks toward "going green" to combat climate change and reduce humanity's carbon footprint, electric vehicles are gaining ground. Their popularity spiked during the pandemic, and automakers continue to make commitments and invest in battery-making operations.

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According to data collected by Michigan Radio, there are 10,620 registered electrical vehicles on the road in Michigan. But more electric vehicles means more electric vehicle crashes — and, potentially, more electric vehicle fires. That prospect is concerning to firefighters.

Fire Engineer Matt Halleck — a training officer in Hillsdale, Michigan — said there's not really anything firefighters can do to extinguish electrical vehicle fires, other than to protect exposures and let them burn.

Hillsdale City Fire Engineeer Matt Halleck performs a function check on a secured closed breathing apparatus.
Hillsdale City Fire Engineeer Matt Halleck performs a function check on a secured closed breathing apparatus.

The National Fire Protection Association believes firefighters are at greater risk responding to electrical vehicle fires than typical vehicle fires, in part due to a general lack of understanding.

The NFPA has partnered with the National Transportation Safety Board to help educate 250,000 first responders on the unique dangers posed by electrical vehicle fires, but there are almost one million more in need of training.

Halleck, who also serves as an instructor for the Hillsdale County Firefighters Association Fire Academy, said the fire service is often more reactive than proactive in adapting to emerging threats and trends.

"These electric vehicle fires ... there's really not much we can do," he said. "We have to be more cognizant and identify which type of vehicle we're dealing with when arriving on a scene. Electricity and water do not mix."

Electric vehicle fires can often burn for several hours, and in some instances for days, Halleck said.

The dangers become even more critical when dealing with a submerged electrical vehicle, or if someone is trapped inside.

Damaged batteries can often produce a flammable gas. Submersion in water, especially salt water, can damage electrical components and result in a short — meaning potential fire once the vehicle is removed from water.

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While some larger municipal fire departments are acquiring equipment specially designed to deal with electrical vehicles, the smaller, often times part-paid or volunteer fire departments — which make up a majority of those in the fire service — are struggling to keep up.

In rural Hillsdale County, fire protection budgets often fall hundreds of thousands of dollars short, leaving firefighters themselves to seek out highly competitive grants or organize fundraisers to purchase needed equipment.

"They didn't really think this through all the way when electrical vehicles came about," Halleck said.

— Contact reporter Corey Murray at cmurray@hillsdale.net. Follow him on Twitter at @cmurrayHDN.

This article originally appeared on Hillsdale Daily News: Firefighters have serious concerns about electric vehicles