On Dec. 19th 2018 in Las Gatos CA, a 2018 Tesla Model S was dropped off at a tire shop by a tow truck after the owner noticed a low tire message on his vehicles message center. Shortly after 2 PM, while the owner was still present, the Tesla caught fire in the parking lot of the tire shop. The owner and an employee of the tire shop heard a hissing sound coming from the vehicle shortly before flames became visible. The vehicle was never involved in a collision nor was any work being done on it at the time.
On arrival, the Santa Clara Co. FD reported an electric vehicle was involved and what appeared to be pressure fed flames were visible underneath and toward the front of the vehicle. Santa Clara Co. FD personnel were on scene approximately 6 hours and estimated that upwards of 8,000 gallons of water was required to extinguish this fire.
When the fire was by the Fire Department’s evaluation completely extinguished, the vehicle was transported by a flatbed wrecker to a tow yard several hours after the original fire. Fire crews were called to that same tow yard hours later after the Tesla reignited in the tow yard. The re-ignition of the vehicle required several more hours of work by the Fire Department to suppress the fire and as before, thousands of additional gallons of water was required to finally extinguish the fire. The vehicle was declared a total loss by the owner’s insurer.
Vehicle fires are statistically a relatively common fire problem for the greatest number of Fire Departments. According to the NFPA report “Fire Loss in the United States During 2020”, vehicle fires accounted for 15% of the 1.4 million fires that took place in the US in 2020, and those fires contributed to 18% of civilian deaths and 11% of the civilian injuries. EV fires by contrast make up about 0.02% of the US fire total. Electric vehicle (EV) sales are experiencing exponential growth both in the United States and abroad. By 2030, Electric vehicles are expected to account for more than half of all new car sales. This fact alone will require Fire Service organizations to be better informed, trained and prepared to deal with EV fires.
Although far less common than Internal Combustion engine (ICE) vehicle fires, EV fires can be extremely difficult to put out and, in many cases, may require 10 times as much water to extinguish. Tesla’s own emergency response guide for the Model S warns that battery fires can require between 3,000 to 8,000 gallons of water to fully extinguish the flames. In a typical ICE vehicle fire, fire crews can often put out flames with less than 800 gallons of water. But in electric vehicle fires, EV industry prevalent high voltage lithium-ion batteries are susceptible to “thermal runaway,” an uncontrollable self-heating state, which means significantly more water is needed. Additionally, “stranded energy” in damaged cells can reignite a fire long after the initial fire. Another complicating factor when faced with an EV fire is the battery pack can be well shielded from a Fire Departments efforts to directly access it with a fire stream.
In the last 5 years, EV fire education has been made a priority for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). In 2020, the NTSB released a lengthy report outlining the safety risks and firefighting obstacles posed by EV lithium-ion battery fires, highlighting a California EV fire incident that required an estimated 20,000 gallons of water to extinguish.
Many Fire Service agencies do not have immediate access to the quantity of water that is required to completely extinguish EV fires, the typical fire engine will carry 500-800 gallons of water. To access the quantity of water required to extinguish an EV fire, most urban agencies will need to establish a fire hydrant supplied water source to have the water on hand that is required. If hydrants are not available, such as in rural or undeveloped areas like a freeway or interstate, additional resources will have to dispatched in terms of additional fire engines and or Tenders (fire trucks with very large tanks capable of carrying sometimes thousands of gallons of water) to have access to the quantity of water required for these fires.
Given the modified tactics and resources that may be necessary to effectively fight an EV fire, an essential component of the preparedness of any Fire Departments ability to deal with an EV fire is knowing prior to the dispatch of units that an EV is in fact, involved. This is pertinent whether the fire is reported to be a “stand alone” vehicle fire or a fire that is the result of some kind of impact like a motor vehicle collision.
The emerging issue of EV fires and the need for modified Fire Department tactics and resources in these incidents has been the subject of considerable research by the Fire Council of Standards Research Division since late 2018. Starting with v7.1 of the FPDS released in July 2020 and in subsequent maintenance releases to date, an increased emphasis on recognizing the presence of EVs has been incorporated into the FPDS. This was done initially in Protocol 71 (Vehicle Fires), but with the upcoming release of v8.0, will be expanded considerably and also incorporated into Protocol 77 (Traffic Collision/ Transportation Incident).
With the release of v8.0, the FPDS will address this on Protocol 71 (Vehicle Fires) by asking specific questions about whether or not any of the vehicles involved are EV. If EV vehicles are involved, a specific suffix is amended to the code identifying the vehicle as an EV, which allows the agency to assign the required resources to mitigate the fire problem. The EV suffix can be amended to any vehicle type, not just a passenger vehicle. Other larger, EV types such as buses and trucks are becoming more prevalent, so the Protocol will be able to continue to provide the correct call identification and prioritization as the industry evolves. A specific suffix is assigned on protocol 71 because a typical ICE passenger vehicle fire will commonly be assigned a Bravo level response (typically single engine company red lights and siren), which is known to be efficient for an ICE fire but not an EV fire.
With the release of v8.0, the FPDS will address EV involvement in a different manner on Protocol 77 (Traffic Collision/ Transportation Incident) than on Protocol 71. A long-standing blue operator question is present in this protocol that references if the caller mentioned any of the vehicles being on fire. If any of the vehicles are on fire, the code is amended with a specific suffix indicating that, which will commonly multiply the responding resources for most Fire Departments. Specific questions are also asked about whether or not any of the vehicles involved are EV, but the information about the involvement of an EV is informational only and is passed in the call information, it does not result in a specific code or suffix. This is done this way in Protocol 77 because even without an EV being involved, a Traffic Collision with a vehicle or vehicles on fire will very typically be assigned a multi-company red lights and siren response. In most cases, this would be sufficient resources to mitigate the fire problem whether an EV is involved or not. If a Traffic Collision with fire occurs in an area known to not have fire hydrants, Fire Departments should consider Tender support as part of the response regardless of the involvement of an EV.
Addressing EV fires is one example of how the IAED Fire Council of Standards is dedicated to the pro-active study and engagement of emerging Fire Service issues that impact Fire Departments, 911 Centers and the municipalities/areas they serve.
- IAED Fire Council of Standards discussion and research re Electric Vehicle fires, 2018-2019
- NFPA Research, Fire Loss in the United States During 2020 - Sept. 2021
- NFPA Research Foundation, Stranded Energy within Lithium-Ion Batteries – July 2018
- Santa Clara Co. Fire Department, After Action Report, Tesla Fire - Dec. 2018
- NTSB Safety Report, Risks to Emergency Responders from Lithium-Ion fires in Electric Vehicles - Nov. 2020
- Independent Auto Insurance Brokers, EV Fires Less Common than ICE Fires – July 2019
- Europe Inside EVS Publication – April 2022
- TESLARATI, Tesla Model S Plaid Fires – July 2021
- Tesla Emergency Response Guide For First Responders – Sept. 2016