Electric Vehicles

Mar 15, 2012

View PDF

The Canadian government expects 500,000 highway capable plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) on Canadian roads by 2018.

If EV incentives are successful, it will present a whole new set of challenges to first responders. The lack of training of Canadian first responders in this domain is a speed bump that needs to be addressed. Unlike the U.S., where over 10,000 first responders have received training and can access web resources to support them, no training appears forthcoming in Canada. A way forward is needed, but we lack a champion to fund the training.

Community risks are usually mitigated effectively when subjected to a detailed risk analysis. This is not the case with EVs. Though these vehicles are already present on the streets, the first responder community has neither training nor experience in how to respond to collisions where EVs are involved. We need a training program in place as quickly as possible. Firefighters and other first responders who put their lives on the line every day deserve to have all of the specific information they need about EVs when dealing with such hazardous situations.

Risks with Electric Vehicles
What are the risks that these vehicles pose? Though they have all been tested under rigorous safety systems, they have unique characteristics that will change how emergency service personnel respond. The first concern is identification of the vehicles and their unique systems. Proper identification leads the responder to begin a knowledgeable evaluation of the incident and thus determine the appropriate response. For instance, how to power down the vehicle and ensure it is de-energized before commencing the response? Also, some safety features, such as boron-infused steel, may exceed the capability of some departments cutting equipment. Identification of the vehicles would also help structural firefighters in identifying fixed charging systems on domestic properties.

In 2010 the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in the U.S. was awarded a grant from DHS and FEMA to identify and help facilitate best practices and guidelines for first responders related to hybrid-electric vehicles and EVs. The report highlighted the risks of electric shock, vehicle movement, and fire extinguishment as key areas of concern for emergency responders.

Electric shock is an area of particular concern. Today's popular hybrids include batteries that surge with 500 volts of electricity - enough to cause serious injury or death. Not all the marking systems for hazards are followed by all manufacturers. The location of batteries, typically in the trunk, may also be unknown to responders. The focus must be on being prepared for such an emergency and, right now, Canadian responders are not!

To identify the risks and teaching points in the U.S., the NFPA conducted 17 open consultation sessions with emergency responders. To develop the training materials, they received a $5.4 million grant from the Department of Energy. The NFPA also added funds and resources to the project. They brought in responders as well as industry representatives such as the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. NFPA also co-hosted two annual Electric Vehicle Safety Standards Summits with the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

A Peek at the U.S. Program
The training resources are now complete and were rolled out across the U.S. this past year. The training program has been customized somewhat for all emergency response personnel, including firefighters, police, EMS, 911 telecommunication personnel, and tow truck operators in some cases. Training varies, depending on the role the responder is expected to play in a vehicle response. It covers the following topics:

  • Overview of the EV electrical and safety systems;
  • Identification of electric and hybrid vehicles;
  • Immobilization process;
  • Electrical power-down procedures;
  • EV extrication awareness, including high strength steel;
  • Vehicle fire recommended practices;
  • Emergency operations (battery fires, submersion); and
  • New challenges presented by vehicle charging stations and infrastructure.

To support the training, a web portal has been developed (www.evsafetytraining.org) as a collection point for EV response resources. The web site provides emergency response guides for every vehicle on North American roads. Where these guides were not developed by the manufacturer, NFPA worked with them to produce one.

As of December 2011, the NFPA has delivered classroom training to first responders across the U.S. through state agencies. It also introduced online training developed with OnStar and General Motors for the Chevy Volt that has been delivered to over 10,000 responders in the US.

EV Response Training in Canada
All of this training and data has been developed under a U.S. federal government grant, which means it is not available to Canadian response personnel. To solve this, a separate proposal for Canadian training has been developed. The problem we face in Canada is that this is an "orphan policy" issue - it does not fall clearly within the mandate of any one government department nor is it clearly a provincial or municipal solution. NFPA has therefore proposed a partnership with Red River College, Canada's electrical vehicle centre of expertise, whereby Red River College would act as the national project manager. The lion's share of the work has already been done by NFPA but the content must be reviewed for Canadian-specific input. As well, all materials would need to be available in English and French and available through a separate web portal including all emergency response guides. NFPA also supports such a model with other countries.

The funding needed to develop and introduce such a program is approximately $5 for every electrical vehicle that is proposed to be licensed. This covers the project management, the licensing rights, and the translation. It also covers the initial development of the web portal, the training of instructors and a national rollout of a train-the-trainer program in each province and territory. The portal and its resources would then be sustained by training revenues after the initial one year launch period.

While vehicle safety standards for the manufacture of vehicles are under a federal purview and highway safety is a provincial responsibility, the training of first responders falls to the municipalities. This crucial training must be applied consistently across Canada, which would entail federal funding and national standards. If left to the provinces to fund and implement, we would endure duplication of effort and inconsistent application for identical training needs across Canada. Translating materials into French (the greatest portion of the costs) and maintaining the database are also an efficiency concern, however, a federally-funded model would achieve economies of scale and result in a better national level program.

Detroit First Responders get electric vehicle safety training.

The introduction of electric vehicles into the market will accelerate in the next few years. Unfortunately we do not have the training and resources for emergency personnel to safely respond to incidents involving these vehicles. We can, however, benefit from all the efforts completed by NFPA in the US and catch up if we look at the funding of a Canadian specific program through the partnership of NFPA and Red River College. We have a solid model based on the U.S. experience now. What we need is the commitment of governments to enable our first responders to do their best job safely and effectively.

Sean Tracey is the Canadian Regional Director for the National Fire Prevention Association and an active voice in the provision of resources for the firefighting community in Canada.
© FrontLine Security 2012