COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — As demand for electric vehicles is about to shift into high gear in the coming years, firefighters said they’re playing catch-up as they prepare to handle emergencies involving those vehicles.
The Ohio Department of Transportation started accepting bids Monday from companies looking to install electric vehicle charging stations across the state.
Ohio will receive more than $100 million over the next five years as part of a $7.5 billion federal program to build an electric vehicle infrastructure across the nation’s highways. The infrastructure would include charging stations along designated “alternative fuel corridors” and strengthened electrical grids to power those stations.
Trainers with the Columbus Division of Fire spent the final weekend of October learning how handle electric vehicle emergencies, which would require different fire suppression and extrication tactics.
“We’re learning as we go. The whole industry is,” said Battalion Chief Jeff Geitter. “This is new technology for everybody. Everyone’s excited and it sounds like these are going to be great vehicles for the future. But as they’re new, they come with some unintended consequences.”
Geitter said fires from electric vehicle batteries burn hotter than gasoline fires. While putting out a fire in a gasoline-powered vehicle can take as little as 30 seconds, Geitter said electric vehicle fires take much longer to control. They require more water than a truck can hold, at a pressure more powerful than what the hoses can put out.
The foam that firefighters often use to smother flames can actually worsen flames from electric vehicle batteries, Geitter said.
“The chemical makeup of the battery and the size of it, it’s almost this self-perpetuating – it feeds itself as it starts to burn, and rapidly starts on fire,” Geitter said. “We may just have to let it burn and make sure any of the runoff or anything else that’s around it is safe.”
The Columbus Division of Fire is looking into developing a checklist for crews who respond to electric vehicle calls in the future. Geitter said the department is also considering preparing specific towing companies to respond to electric vehicle incidents, as even a fender bender can risk the battery’s integrity.
“The right accident or the right flat tire that comes apart and damages the batteries – we don’t have a way to assess those, but we certainly need to be aware that they could become a problem,” Geitter said.
The preparations in Columbus are an initiative of the fire department, which paid a private company for the training. While the state and federal governments hit the accelerator on plans to bring electric vehicles into the mainstream, it’s up to local departments to prepare for that.
“As you build a new thing, you’re going to find out where the challenges are. And then you have to run to the challenge,” said Mitch Landrieu, a senior advisor to President Biden, coordinating the nationwide electric vehicle infrastructure effort.
Landrieu told NBC4 there is no money set aside in the infrastructure package to fund electric vehicle safety programs or training.
“The president is, you know, leaning really in and making sure that police and fire will fund it through the American Rescue Plan. There are substantial amounts of money in that, that can be used for these kinds of training exercises,” Landrieu said.
“We’re going to work with the governors and the mayors to make sure this is done correctly.”
Ohio’s electric vehicle infrastructure plan identifies safety training as an issue that will need to be addressed moving forward.
“The Division of State Fire Marshal continues to support Ohio’s Fire Service with this emerging technology and its challenges,” said Andy Ellinger, a spokesperson for the fire marshal, which published guidance for electric vehicle fires in 2021, developed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.