Author(s): Fred Durso. Published on March 1, 2010.

An electric car

Plugged In
NFPA develops a program to train emergency personnel on avoiding shock and other hazards from advanced electric-drive vehicles

Visit NFPA's Electric Vehicle Safety Training website.

NFPA Journal®, March/April 2010

By Fred Durso, Jr.

To get an idea of the hazards emergency responders face when handling hybrid and electric-vehicle incidents, the National Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System is a good place to start.

Casey Grant, research director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation:
Play audio The differences between electric vehicles?
Play audio Key issues for first responders?
Play audio Why is the Foundation studying safety issues for electric vehicles?

Andrew Klock NFPA senior project manager:
Play audio What is the U.S. Emergency Responder Safety Training for Advanced Electric Drive Vehicles project?
Play audio Why launch this program?
Play audio How will the project's safety information be distributed?


Response Time
The U.S. Fire Administration offers these tips when dealing with crashes involving hybrid vehicles:

  • Always assume the vehicle is powered-up despite no engine noises.
  • Put vehicle in park, turn ignition off, and remove key to disable the high-voltage system.
  • Consider the electrical system unsafe for a full five minutes after ignition shutdown.
  • Never touch, cut, or open any orange cable or components protected by orange shields.
  • Remain a safe distance from vehicle if it is on fire.

In one incident, emergency responders rushed to a collision involving a hybrid vehicle, which used a 500-volt battery pack to supplement an internal combustion engine. After tending to the passengers, who had only minor injuries, firefighters assessed the vehicle and assumed the ignition was off since the motor wasn’t running. They were wrong.

As the team worked near the car’s electrical components, a firefighter who happened to be familiar with hybrids realized the electrical system was still live. The crew took immediate steps to power down the vehicle. "While there was no injury, crews worked directly in front of the car and had raised the hood with the potential of injury," states the report on the system’s website, "The situational awareness was such that the proper shutdown procedures were not readily recognized. We learned that we were not as trained as we thought we were. And this was a competent crew with many years of experience."

Incidents like this one may become increasingly common as more hybrids—vehicles that combine propulsion systems, most commonly an internal combustion engine with a battery set and an electric motor—find their way onto U.S. roads. Meanwhile, electric vehicles (EVs), which rely solely on electricity for power, are poised to become the next automotive wave, especially as gas prices fluctuate and increased importance is placed on reducing carbon emissions.

While the new technologies demonstrate a growing environmental consciousness in the marketplace, they also present an array of new operating conditions that change the rules for emergency responders. That’s why NFPA has launched the U.S. Emergency Responder Safety Training for Advanced Electric Drive Vehicles, which will develop and implement an emergency response training program focused on advanced electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrid EVs, EVs, and fuel cell vehicles. The three-year project, funded by a $4.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), will develop a website that will include training programs, simulations, and videos. Classroom-training courses will also be developed, with webinars and handbooks as possible spinoffs from these courses, according to Andrew Klock, NFPA’s senior project manager for the program. NFPA was awarded the DOE funds in February, and Klock anticipates completing many first responder training courses for the project over the next year.

"We need to train our first responders on how to handle these vehicles," Klock says. "We’re creating an awareness of the risk these vehicles bring, and we’re demonstrating how NFPA is leading the way in keeping the public safe with new technology."

Kathryn Clay, research director for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a group representing 11 top automakers that advocates for new sustainable technologies and other public policy issues, says the NFPA project is designed to anticipate safety issues for emergency responders. "In the decades to come, we’ll be seeing federal policies that will try to provide incentives for the rapid entry of electric vehicles into the marketplace," she says. The NFPA project, she adds, "is a forward-thinking process."

Where the voltage meets the road
Electricity is becoming more popular on American roads. As of November, 2009, there were 1.5 million hybrids in the U.S., the top hybrid market in the world. Though the overall auto market fell by 21 percent last year, hybrid sales dropped by just 8 percent, according to The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers notes Toyota sold its millionth Prius to drivers across the globe back in 2008.

Vehicles that run only on electricity promise to join hybrids soon. Last year, President Barack Obama pledged to have one million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on the road by 2015, and championed a $2.4 billion initiative, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, designed to accelerate EV research and development efforts. Car manufacturers around the world have already created dozens of EV models; many of those are concept vehicles, but they demonstrate the industry’s interest in technology beyond the internal combustion engine. The fully electric Chevrolet Volt and Nissan LEAF, which use lithium-ion batteries and can travel 40 and 100 miles, respectively, on a charge, will be introduced this year. Toyota has said it will introduce a fully electric plug-in Prius next year. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, manufacturers predict sales of the Volt and LEAF to meet or exceed 10,000 vehicles in their first model year. Proposed government incentives of up to $7,500 are expected to entice drivers to get behind the futuristic wheel.

This push has made the fire service increasingly concerned about the risks associated with these vehicles, says Ken Willette, director of Public Fire Protection for NFPA. "It can take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to pry a vehicle away from a person who’s trapped inside," Willette says, "and what you pry and what you cut can become a science specific to that type of vehicle."

In the meantime, the Fire Protection Research Foundation, on behalf of NFPA, has begun to study some of the safety issues raised by EVs. Last year, NFPA was awarded a grant from the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to identify and help facilitate best practices and guidelines for first responders related to hybrid-electric vehicles and EVs. In his upcoming report, Casey Grant, the Foundation’s research director, highlighted electric shock, vehicle movement, and fire extinguishment and overhaul as key areas of concern for emergency responders.

Shock is an area of particular concern for responders. Today’s popular hybrids include batteries that surge with 500 volts of electricity, Grant says, enough to cause serious injury or death. Though most cabling for such systems is colored orange for easy discovery, the practice isn’t followed by all manufacturers. The batteries’ location, typically in the trunk, might also be unknown to responders. "If it’s going to hurt or kill you, you might as well call it high voltage," Grant says. "These vehicles aren’t that unusual. They’re just different, and we need to know those differences so we can act accordingly." He stresses that neither his project, nor NFPA’s new DOE-funded project, is calling into question the safety of these vehicles for the people who use them. "They’re a great thing," Grant says. "Nobody needs to panic, and nobody is speaking disparagingly about how safe these cars are for drivers. The focus is on being prepared for an emergency."

Grant adds that, since new-generation electric vehicles will require charging stations—which will be located private garages, public parking garages, and other areas—NFPA is also closely monitoring how these new vehicles could impact NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code®.

The Foundation’s report will provide useful background for the new DOE-funded project, says Klock. Hybrid response guides and first-responder guides already exist, Klock says, and manufacturers publish model-specific documents on handling these vehicles in an emergency. But Klock says that’s not enough, since what’s recommended for one car may not be appropriate for another. "First-responder guides vary in complexity and the things they choose to tell you," he says. "One would wonder: ‘What’s the correct thing to do? Which document should I follow?’"

Complicating those questions is the number of different technologies being developed. Today’s popular hybrids have two power sources: an energy conversion unit such as an internal-combustion engine, and batteries. (The nickel metal hydride batteries found in the popular Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid are recharged through regenerative braking and by their gasoline-powered engines.) Plug-in hybrids have the same two power sources, except that the batteries can be charged from an electrical outlet. The electric motor of an EV is powered by batteries that can be recharged by plugging them into household receptacles. And fuel-cell vehicles, which also have electric motors, produce their electricity primarily with hydrogen.

That’s why the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which underscores the need for new training programs, predicts one vehicle won’t dominate the market in years to come. "We won’t have one advanced technology that’s a clear winner," Clay adds. "What we’re much more likely to see are different technologies suited for different regions of the country." Residents in the western U.S. who drive greater distances may utilize biofuels, she says, while city dwellers who drive less might make the EV popular.

To help cover all the technological bases, NFPA’s new project has enlisted the help of other organizations, including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, DOE’s national laboratory that develops renewable energy and energy-efficiency technology. Representatives from those organizations will sit on a technical support group for the project. A separate fire service technical panel, made up of 11 members from an array of fire-safety organizations, will advise on a variety of topics, including the best approaches for training practices.

"Our goal is to have the premier portal where first responders can get education and safety information regarding all aspects of advanced electric vehicles," Klock says. "NFPA wants to develop widely accessible training programs so our first responders will be reassured that they are able to handle whatever circumstance may surface, and that they are prepared to safely deal with any new hazards or vehicle extrication techniques that may be required."

Fred Durso, Jr. is staff writer for NFPA Journal.