Central Florida Firefighters grapple with expanding electric vehicle use

ORLANDO, Fla. — Just 3% of all the vehicles sold in Florida last year were electric; however, that number is expected to grow as the price of the vehicles falls, charging infrastructure expands and gas prices continue to rise.

While this may be good news from the environment, it presents a host of challenges for emergency crews.

“We fought the fire initially and extinguished it and we got very cool temperatures initially, but the batteries reheated on their own and caught fire again,” says Captain Greg Hubbard of Orange County Fire and Rescue. “We had to go back out there (salvage yard) and put out the fire again.”

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Not only do the battery packs on electric vehicles require more than three times the normal amount of water to cool, they can also reignite.

“It is absolutely something we are aware of and something we train for,” says Capt. Hubbard.

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But training, at least for now, means hands-off. While manufacturers have been open with detailed safety information, hands-on experiences usually don’t come until there is an accident to deal with.

“We have not been able to get a late model Tesla to rip apart, or a hybrid. They’re just not in the junkyards yet,” says Deputy Fire Chief John Thibert of the Seminole County Fire Department. “For us, it’s about knowing what the risks are and being prepared.”

Being prepared also means dealing with the shock risk inherent in electric vehicles as well as Florida’s own geography.

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In 2017 the National Fire Protection Association issued an EV bulletin stating, “submersion in water (especially salt water) can damage low and high voltage components. Although not a common occurrence, this could result in an electrical short and potential fire once the vehicle is no longer submerged.”

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In December, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried’s office released its “Electric Vehicle Roadmap” laying out where the state stands as more drives go green. In the report researchers found that “capacity and efficiency of EV batteries continue to increase as the price for the batteries continues to decline. The primary factors for lower battery pricing are the increase in manufacturing scale and efficiency, advancements in battery technology, and the increased adoption of EVs.”

The report highlights the growing number of electric vehicles on the road and projects continued growth across the state.

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