DIGGING DEEPER: Electric vehicles pose new challenges for area firefighters

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Electric vehicle(WRDW)
Published: Nov. 5, 2021 at 2:26 PM CDT
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(25 NEWS) - A growing number of car owners are trading the pump for the outlet.

Rivian is now rolling off electric trucks in Normal.

And the Governor wants one million electric cars on the road in Illinois by 2030.

While electric vehicles aren’t new, there are more and more of them out there, all by different manufacturers, and they’re not all the same.

So that’s why learning about EVs and training are so important for first responders, in case of a fire or other emergency.

For firefighters, every situation is different, and changing technology can make a tough job tougher.

“Firefighters need to understand and know what they are dealing with,” said Tom Shubert, director of firefighting programs for the Illinois Fire Service Institute.

Shubert trains firefighters and first responders how to safely work on electric vehicles if there’s a fire or accident.

“The electrical cables that run through these vehicles, whether it be an over the road vehicle, whether it be just a regular small vehicle are always a concern, and firefighters and first responders must always be aware of what’s going on with the dangers of these vehicles,” said Shubert.

Shubert said every EV is different, and the batteries can be located in different areas of the car. He said there are dangers they don’t encounter in a standard car.

“Sometimes they have to get into the motor compartment where the fire starts in the vehicle, they have to do that with tools. There are concerns with newer vehicles in the hybrid vehicles because of the power cables , you have to make sure you don’t punch through them or harm them in any way. They can create a shock back to the firefighters or anyone working around it,” Shubert said.

Once it looks like the fire is out, Shubert said the batteries can continue to heat up.

“They just put the fire out, put it out on the tow truck and take it to the junk yard, and it sits there for 2-3 hours, and these batteries are continuing to heat. They can reignite the car and start another fire,” said Shubert.

For a regular car fire, it takes a few hundred gallons of water to put the fire out.  For an electrical vehicle, it can take thousands.

With more than 30 different electric car manufacturers, we are seeing more EVs on the roads.

That’s why Shubert recommends this type of training.

Right now, there are 34,363 registered electric vehicles on the roads in Illinois, according to the Secretary of State.

Governor Pritzker wants that to jump to a million by 2030.

“They all have their own unique quarks I guess, where all the electrical wiring runs in the vehicle. So, firefighters have to be mindful of that,” said Mick Humer, Fire Chief for the Normal Fire Department.

Humer said his firefighters have trained in Champaign the last couple of years.

With electric vehicle production under way at Rivian in Normal, he said firefighters need more hands-on training.

“We’ve talked to (Rivian) about that in depth training, but we are just not quite there yet,” said Humer.

One day after this interview with Chief Humer, on October 26th, workers at Rivian had to evacuate for a short time because of a battery part fire.

Chief Humer said it took about 20 minutes to put out, and it took a significant amount of water.

25 News checked in with about eight fire department in our area to see where they are with their training on EV’s -- a majority of them said they’ve had some training, but need more.

Chief Humer said the plan is to get some hands-on training with Rivian in the next few months -- training they want to share with other area departments.

“This just isn’t a Town of Normal situation where we want to have people trained,” he said.

In Bloomington, the fire department’s public information officer Eric Davison said the city’s firefighters are working with Rivian “to better understand their specific vehicles and have had access to multiple manufacturers EV vehicles to further understand how to respond to different models.”

Davison went on to say, “....our department is putting together a guidebook for EV vehicle emergencies that we will continue to update with specifications direct from the manufacturers.

A number of studies show EV’s are not more prone to catch fire, and are just as safe as regular cars, but firefighters are trying to learn more about them, so they can be ready.

Neither Rivian or Tesla returned our email about training for firefighters.  The Illinois Fire Service Institute said there are 1,068 fire departments in Illinois, and 76 departments have trained there in Champaign since 2019.

However, a spokesperson said the departments can choose to go through other private companies for training.

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