Understanding the Fire Risks, Safety Measures, and Making Smart Electric Vehicle (EV) Purchasing Decisions

Woman at EV charging station

As the automotive landscape undergoes a shift towards sustainability, electric vehicles (EVs) have emerged as the potential champions of a greener future. However, like any technological advancement, EVs bring forth their own set of challenges and concerns. One prominent issue that has sparked discussions is the risk of fire incidents involving EVs.

In this comprehensive blog article, we’ll delve into the dynamics of EV fire risks, explore safety measures that should be at the forefront of every EV owner’s mind, and offer essential considerations for those contemplating the switch to an electric future.

Understanding the Dynamics of EV Fires

The fundamental safety of electric vehicles (EV’s) stems from the fact that they operate on lithium-ion batteries, which are generally stable under normal circumstances. However, accidents, manufacturing defects, or external factors can compromise the integrity of these batteries, leading to fire risks.

The inception of the first lithium-ion battery dates back to the 1990s, finding its application in powering a car in the early 2000s. In contrast, petrol and diesel vehicles boast a history spanning well over a century. Consequently, we are still in the process of accumulating comparable data and comprehension regarding the safety aspects of electric vehicles. While incidents of EV fires are rare, it’s important to acknowledge that these batteries, like any power source, can pose risks. The primary hazard arises when the lithium-ion battery undergoes damage, a situation that might occur in the face of extreme heat or if an external force breaches the battery cell wall.

Information obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Air Quality News uncovered that in 2019, the London Fire Brigade dealt with just 54 electric vehicle fires compared to 1,898 petrol and diesel fires. ‘Although these fires remain rare, when they do occur, they can be extremely dangerous. During an electric vehicle fire, over 100 organic chemicals are generated, including some incredibly toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide – both of which are fatal to humans.’ - Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue.

Further data by Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions which shows that between July 2022 and June 2023, UK fire services recorded 239 fires linked to EVs. The rapid rise is attributed to the growing presence of EVs on British roads, spanning cars, trucks, e-bikes, and electric scooters. Whilst this number in comparison to the number of EVs on the road, which is estimated to be around 920,000 as of the end of October 2023, is low we still have to reinforce the need for the batteries to be safe and knowledge to be widely available for what to do in case of an emergency.

One thing we have to consider is that even thought there are many benefits to EVs becoming more widely used, including the greener benefits, they also bring a increased need for more money to be invested into training, especially for frontline fire and rescue personnel. When called, they have the responsibility of extinguishing battery fires, discharging the high-voltage batteries and, in some of the more severe cases, extracting trapped individuals from inside the vehicle. If they do not obtain the correct training, then all of these situations can become very dangerous therefore it is cruicial the correct training is readily available to frontline fire and rescue.

According to to the Faraday Institution 2019 report, across the UK, there are approximately 55,000 fire service personnel spanning 51 local Fire & Rescue Service authorities (FRS). They suggest that they believe not all of these members of staff will need retraining, they estimate that around 44,000 firefighters and fire control personal will need to gain significant skills and competencies enabling them to be able to correctly navigate a case of emergency.

New hazards introduced by EVs need to be anticipated as well, such as uncontrolled or unpredictable vehicle movements, release of toxic gases, and more. In addition to training for frontline fire and rescue staff it is probably an educated idea for owners of EVs to do some research and understand what is best to do themselves incase of an emergency.

Safety Measures in Case of Emergency

Being well-prepared and knowing how to respond in case of an emergency is paramount for every EV owner. Experts hold varying opinions on the optimal approach to address an EV fire.  Fire services are innovating strategies to handle electric car fires. For instance, Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service has revealed that after any incident, road-traffic collision, or fire involving an EV “one of our attending fire engines will follow the recovery vehicle back to the unloading point at their yard to assist with any fires”. Below we will outline some of our suggestions of how to react if such a situation should occur.

1. Develop an Emergency Response Plan in Case of Emergency

Familiarise yourself with your EV’s emergency response plan. Fires caused by EVs are very different to those caused by petrol and diesel cars therefore they require a different process when it comes to dealing with problems caused. For example, according to the Faraday Institution 2019 report, EV fires release large amounts of heat, can be directional, involve projectiles, can produce large volumes of toxic gases, and can reignite after they have apparently been extinguished.

An emergency response plan can often include information on locating the vehicle’s isolation switches and understanding how to shut down the power supply in case of a fire/in efforts to prevent a fire.

2. Know an Evacuation Protocol

If a fire does occur, it is important that you always prioritise your safety and the safety of others over the vehicle or other factors including belongings inside the vehicle. You should evacuate the area immediately if an issue does occur that you are unaware of the root cause and how to deal with it and contact emergency services.

3. Learn the Emergency Contact Information

This step is pretty self-explanatory but ensure that emergency contact information is easily accessible in your vehicle. Additional information that is always good to know is the vehicle model as this might better assist the fire and rescue team to make a decision as what could be the cause of the problem and how to best deal with it.

Things To Consider When Purchasing an EV

Taking all of this information into consideration, here are 5 things we recommend in your consideration when purchasing an EV.

1. Electric Vehicles and Battery Safety Features

Prioritise EV models that come equipped with advanced battery safety features. These may include robust thermal management systems, effective battery cooling, and reinforced structural design.

2. Consider the Manufacturer Reputation

Research the reputation of the EV manufacturer. Established manufacturers with a history of producing reliable vehicles often invest heavily in safety research and development.

3. Regular Maintenance and Upkeep of your EV

Regularly maintain your EV, adhering to the manufacturer’s guidelines. Timely maintenance can address potential issues before they escalate. However, it is important to consider the additional costs over time this will amount to for you.

4. Understanding EV Safety Ratings

Refer to safety ratings provided by relevant authorities. These ratings consider various aspects, including crash safety and fire safety.

As we transition into an era dominated by electric mobility, it’s crucial to approach the adoption of EVs with a comprehensive understanding of potential challenges and the necessary safety measures. The fire risks associated with EVs are real but manageable with correct training, resources and with informed decision-making, and proactive safety measures, EV owners can navigate these challenges effectively. Whether you’re an existing EV owner or contemplating the switch, prioritise safety, stay informed, and contribute to building a sustainable and secure electric future.