Fort Wright looks into equipment to fight electric vehicle fires

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There are 302 electric vehicles currently registered in Kenton County. Fort Wright firefighters haven’t had to extinguish a lithium-ion car battery fire, but that might change, and the fire chief wants to be prepared.

Fire Chief Stephen Schewe said it’s only a matter of time before an electric car fire happens in the area. So, he has taken it upon himself to research and figure out how the city will fight these fires. 

This issue came to Schewe’s attention after seeing electric car fires more often in the news. Additionally, he said that people within the firefighting community are starting to discuss ways to fight these fires better, and Schewe said he wants in. 

“We’re seeing these [lithium-ion battery] fires more and more and I don’t think they’re gonna be going away,” Schewe said. 

But Schewe doesn’t want to blow things out of proportion. 

“For the most part, these are safe cars,” Schewe told LINK nky. “There are high-quality batteries and engines and low-quality ones,” he said, just like with gasoline-powered cars. 

Electric vehicles are less likely than gasoline or hybrid vehicles to catch fire, according to a recent study. If built correctly, a lithium-ion battery has fail-safes to keep it from catching fire. However, they can and do fail. 

While electric vehicle fires are not as common as other car fires, they can be much more dangerous. These fires can burn for weeks, take massive amounts of water to extinguish, and tend to reignite even after being extinguished. Firefighters called to these fires face all of the risks associated with any other car fire, in addition to extreme electrical shock.

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Schewe said that what makes lithium-ion battery fires difficult to extinguish is the grueling measures required to get to the source of the fire—the battery itself. 

“It’s hard to get the water to and through the case [that holds the] battery,” he said.

The same casing that keeps the battery safe inside the car also keeps it from being immediately reached by standard fire-department high-pressure hoses. 

Right now, fire departments are being told that the preferred method of extinguishment is to douse the car with “copious amounts of water,” Schewe said.

A regular car fire, Schewe said, takes about 1,000 to 1,500 gallons of water to put out. A single car fire can be put out by one or two fire engines with full water tanks. 

On the other hand, an electrical vehicle fire can take anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 gallons, which can require fire engines in the double digits. 

Fort Wright only has two fire engines, and while Northern Kentucky fire departments are known for their mutual aid, this still puts a strain on communities where resources are already spread thin. 

Even if they could get all of this water to a scene, drowning the fire still isn’t enough sometimes. So, Schewe is looking into alternatives for when these fires eventually occur in Fort Wright. 

“Right now, it’s all just exploratory,” Schewe said. 

Here are some of the new technologies and equipment he is looking into: 

There is a blanket system that has been attempted in some European countries. Fire departments have tried to smother the fire rather than douse it. 

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Schewe also said there is a method where departments move the car into a large, dumpster-like container, seal the opening, and flood the container with water. This controls the size of the fire while still using water to extinguish it. 

Other methods that Schewe is interested in involve piercing the battery casing so water can get to the source of the fire quicker and more efficiently. 

The next step is to reach out to these equipment vendors and get prices and demonstrations on their products. From there, Schewe and his department will evaluate the options and make a recommendation to Fort Wright City Council.

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