Too hot to handle? Electric car fires pose unique risk for South Florida firefighters

(WSVN) - You see them everywhere … hybrid and fully electric cars. They save drivers trips to the gas station. But when it comes to saving lives, they pose a unique risk for firefighters. 7’s Brian Entin investigates.

Radio traffic: “We can’t get them out.”

The video is tough to watch, knowing two teens are inside this burning car.

A Tesla … on fire after slamming into a wall in Fort Lauderdale on May 8.

The high school seniors who were just weeks away from graduation did not survive.

Witness: “People were standing in the middle of the street, screaming obscenities out of frustration that they couldn’t get to the people in the car.”

Days later, a team from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was sent to South Florida to investigate the electric car fire … and the challenges faced by firefighters.

Stephen Gollan, Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue: “The electric cars in general are presenting new hazards to us. It’s a rapid changing technology.”

Fort Lauderdale Battalion Chief Stephen Gollan was the incident commander the evening of the crash.

He can’t talk specifics because of the federal investigation, but says when electric car batteries catch fire, they are difficult to put out.

Stephen Gollan: “It has been my experience that it is a much hotter fire. There is a lot more energy there.”

The energy comes from the cars’ lithium-ion batteries.

After the fires are extinguished, damaged batteries can reignite.

That’s what happened after the Fort Lauderdale crash — and after this deadly California highway crash earlier this year.

And if someone is trapped inside an electric car, firefighters have to be careful where they cut into the car. Parts may have electricity still flowing through them.

Stephen Gollan: “It could seriously injure the firefighter, whoever was cutting the cables.”

Fort Lauderdale firefighters use iPads with diagrams of the different electric and hybrid cars on them.

It shows them where they can safely cut to avoid electricity.

Stephen Gollan: “Everything we need to see, based on all angles of the vehicle.”

It’s not just electric car fires South Florida firefighters have to train for. There are more electric and hybrid buses on our roads … and they have even bigger batteries.

Steve Feil, Miami-Dade Transit: “This is the kill switch for the battery. If you were to shut it off, you simply move the lever down to the off position.”

Firefighters throughout Miami-Dade train on the county’s 137 hybrid buses.

The batteries are on the roof, and these orange cables are all high voltage.

Steve Feil: “God forbid you have a situation related to the engine. You don’t want anybody inadvertently coming, not understanding, what’s going on and cut the wrong cable.”

Bottom line: electric vehicles are better for the environment. And there’s no evidence they catch on fire more than gas-powered cars. But if they do, firefighters can find themselves in danger if they don’t have the right training.


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