Naperville Fire Department talks electric vehicle accidents

Electric vehicle being charged up. Picture courtesy from unsplash.
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Back in 2021, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker set a goal of having one million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road by 2030. Since then, the number of EVs registered in the state has been climbing. As of January 2022, there were 47,723. By January 15, 2023, that number moved up to 59,992.

Naperville specifically has gone from 1,638 electric vehicles in Jan. 2022, to now 2,586. The city holds the second-highest number of EVs throughout Illinois, trailing only Chicago.

Though the rise was expected, it comes with a fresh set of challenges for fire departments. Electric vehicle accidents, specifically fires, may require a different approach from first responders. NCTV17 spoke to Naperville Fire Department Division Chief, John Sergeant, about EV safety and what Naperville residents should know.

 Is there a different procedure when responding to a fire involving an electric vehicle than a gas vehicle?

 “So the only primary difference between typical gas or even hybrid electric vehicles and fully electric is the battery would give us some additional hazards,” said Chief Sergeant. “One is the type of battery. If it’s lithium-ion it could potentially have some issues like thermal runaway, and the gases that come off of it, if it burns, are toxic to human beings. So that is a unique side of it.”

 Sergeant added, “We’ve been prepared for high-voltage systems in cars for a while because hybrids have been around since the late nineties. But as far as if it’s in a vehicle crash, we have to be cognizant of the high power that’s in these vehicles.”

 Do fires in lithium batteries take longer to put out than those in standard car batteries?

 “Yes. So what’s interesting about lithium batteries is that whether it’s in your phone or whether it’s in your vehicle or your laptop, doesn’t matter, they’re susceptible to thermal runaways when the case that they are in is impacted by fire, heat, punctures, or water can get in them. That can cause the battery to malfunction and start to go into a thermal runaway. So that’s what we’re mostly concerned about and that’s what’s like all over the nation, and there’s a lot of different opinions on how we’re going to fight those fires,” said Sergeant.

 What goes into extinguishing a lithium-ion battery?

 “ did a bunch of tests with vehicle manufacturers and had numerous vehicle fires that they tracked. Their biggest concern was, even 22 hours after the fire was out, a battery reignited,” said Sergeant. “And so some specific things that they’ve recommended for us is large amounts of water [applied to the vehicle fire], get the vehicle away from structures, and even when it’s towed and handed off to what we call second responders, like our tow companies and salvage yards, make sure they know this [is a] fully electric vehicle. It needs to be 50 feet away from buildings and other issues or other vehicles and stuff. So if it were to reignite its own problem, it doesn’t cause a larger problem.” 

How common are vehicle fires in Naperville?

“Last year we had 34 vehicle fires (between all vehicle types), which represents about 0.2% of our call volume. So it’s very, very low,” said Sergeant.

But, Sergeant said, department awareness of handling EV fires is important as their numbers grow. “We have to be concerned about it because as these vehicles dominate our roadways more and more, we’ve got to be ready to respond to those emergencies, just like we do with diesel vehicles or gas or anything else. But it still represents a pretty small numerical number of calls that we run every year,” Sergeant added.

Is the Naperville Fire Department and other departments across the state ready to handle the increase in electric vehicles?

“Certainly, I think large population centers have the resources from a fire department standpoint, and from an energy grid standpoint to handle all the impact of this,” said Sergeant.

“I would certainly be concerned in areas that don’t have, you know, large fire departments or are all volunteer like their resources are going to probably be a little bit strained to deal with these types of incidents and fires and highways and such,” said Sergeant. 

Will the Naperville Fire Department need an additional budget to fight Electric vehicle fires?

“From a budgetary impact, there may be tools and equipment in the future that will help us respond to these,” Sergeant said. “But, you know, we sit on incidents for prolonged periods of time already, if it’s a downed power line or something like that. So it would just be another one of those calls that, you know, saps up our resources in that way.”

“Before we dedicate taxpayer resources to something like that [Fighting EV fire], we need to assure that’s part of a best practice plan that works,” he added. “Everything we carry on our rigs is is on the rig for a reason. We have all those tools for a specific reason.”

Is there anything else you’d like to share with the community?

“I just would remind the citizens in Naperville that, one, this fire department is ready to deal with any emergency. And vehicle fires specifically represent such a small, small portion of our call volume [and] we don’t anticipate a large spike in car fires or anything else,” said Sergeant.

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