Norfolk firefighters face electric vehicle blaze dangers

From now on, two fire engines will be sent to all car fires involving electric vehicles, rather than the one sent to incidents involving diesel and petrol engines.

Firefighters are also having to undergo new training to put out lithium-ion battery blazes, which are considered especially challenging to tackle.

This is because during a fire, the energy stored in the battery is released as heat in what is known as ‘thermal runaway’, while toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, are generated.

It can lead to fires that are extremely difficult to extinguish, because it can be so difficult to get cooling water to the battery.

A normal car fire would take between 1,000 and 2,000 litres of water to douse, but up to 30,000 litres can be needed to put out electric vehicle fires.

The new protocol of sending an extra engine also relates to incidents involving electric scooters and bikes.

Eastern Daily Press: Fire chiefs are having to adapt to deal with fires involving electric vehiclesFire chiefs are having to adapt to deal with fires involving electric vehicles (Image: Press Association)

Norfolk fire chiefs said firefighters have had special training to deal with the blazes – and have techniques to protect crews and members of the public.

READ MORE: Electric car charge points coming to Norwich streets

Margaret Dewsbury, cabinet member for communities and partnerships at Norfolk County Council, which runs the fire service, said: “Thankfully, incidents involving electric vehicles are rare.

“These vehicles have lots of internal safety measures to try to prevent issues occurring. However they can still happen.

Eastern Daily Press: Margaret Dewsbury, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for communities and partnershipsMargaret Dewsbury, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for communities and partnerships (Image: Archant)

“We continue to work closely with the National Fire Chiefs Council to
make sure that we are ready to deal with this type of incident.

“Current firefighting techniques would protect firefighters and members of the public and we have suitable training and PPE in place, but the current approaches may result in more defensive firefighting tactics in certain situations.”

READ MORE: Lithium battery warning after two Norfolk house fires

Mrs Dewsbury said the service’s fire control was doing more to establish whether fires involved electric vehicles when people call 999.

Other protocol changes include sending a more highly qualified officer – with particular tactical expertise – and a HAZMAT (hazardous materials) officer, to battery fires.

Mrs Dewsbury said: “Our teams have a good operational understanding about what specific hazards are involved.

“In addition, our new risk and policy group manager will be reviewing our overall response to this type of incident.”

Eastern Daily Press: Norfolk firefighters deal with more than 200 car fires each yearNorfolk firefighters deal with more than 200 car fires each year (Image: Bill Smith)

Of 754 vehicle fires, ranging from accidents to arsons, which Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service has dealt with since 2020, eight involved electric vehicles.

In 2020/21 there was one car and one scooter, in 2021/22 and 2022/23 there were, in each year, two bikes and one scooter.

However, as the number of electric cars on the roads increases significantly, there are rising fears about the threat of battery fires.

READ MORE: Greater Anglia e-scooter ‘fire risk’ ban on Norfolk trains

Research into ways to tackle them is still being conducted, but there is not yet an established consensus on the best firefighting strategy.

Approaches tested include placing electric cars into water, covering them with foam or with a large fire blanket.

The most common approach, though, is to use large amounts of water to cool down the battery material.

Eastern Daily Press: Norfolk fire chief Ceri SumnerNorfolk fire chief Ceri Sumner (Image: Norfolk County Council)

At a Norfolk County Council meeting earlier this year, Ceri Sumner, Norfolk’s chief fire officer, said the issue of lithium-ion batteries was “keeping her awake at night”.

The fire service now considers the devices an “emerging risk” on its community risk management plan – the document it uses to assess dangers facing the county.

As well as being used in vehicles, the batteries, are being installed at locations across the county to store energy from offshore wind turbines and rural solar farms.

Fire chiefs around the country have been calling for more legislation and guidance from the government around the use of the technology on transport, buildings, houses or large storage sites.

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