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Firefighters training for electric car emergencies

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When firefighters respond to vehicular calls they must first determine whether they are dealing with electric vehicles.

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“Sometimes you can’t tell because the licence plate might be off, so you don’t know,” said Tony Hietkamp, Tillsonburg Fire and Rescue Services platoon chief. “And they don’t run the same as a regular car – there’s no noise. It’s a different animal.

“If it’s in a crash, we have to know the lifting points and stuff like that now. It’s a lot different than a regular car where you can get right at everything. The majority of batteries are located underneath the vehicle itself or behind a seat. So we have to know where we can work with our cutting tools.

“The problem is getting at the fires … because now we have to lift the car up on its side and pour water on it that way instead of going through the front of the vehicle. Now the fire’s mostly underneath.”

Hietkamp said there are a few other things they have to watch out for including “energy still stuck in the car.” Rather than gasoline spilling onto the road, the electricity is still in batteries. Damaged batteries can spread fires.

“That’s the problem we’re going to be experiencing the next little while until the car companies figure out how we can get that energy out of that system. A fire starts in one section and if you put it out, a couple hours later it could catch fire again.”

It also requires more water to put out EV fires, said Hietkamp, and sometimes up to 10 times the amount of water they normally would use.

“You don’t have to worry about electrocution or anything like that. The EVs are pretty good, just a few things you have to look out for.”

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Tillsonburg Fire and Rescue Services has not yet responded to an EV fire.

“We’re trying to stay ahead,” said Hietkamp. “The department is trying to stay as current as possible on the new technology that is coming out.”

By 2030, Hietkamp says they expect 130 to 150 million EVs on North American roads (including hybrids), compared to just over three million in 2017.

“So you’re going to see a rapid change in the next little while.”

The firefighters had started EV training a week earlier with an indoor PowerPoint presentation to show the general layout of an EV, as well as an outdoor car-cutting exercise.

On Sept. 11, members of the Waterloo Region Electric Vehicle Association (WREVA) brought six electric vehicles to the Tillsonburg fire station for a firefighter education/training session.

“We did this for the Kitchener fire department and someone here said ‘Can you come down here and do it for us?’” said Mark Coughlan, owner of a Chevrolet Volt hybrid.

“The technologies keep coming,” said Hietkamp, “and it’s moving at a really fast clip. The technology is evolving and we just need to stay ahead of the curve.”

As more cars are plugged in at home, firefighters will need to be mindful of charging stations at structure fires. There are also Tesla ‘roofing shingles’ that are actually solar panels.

“If that goes forward, we’ve got the housing part of it on the roof, but also where are they going to store that energy? That’s another thing we have to watch out for.”

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Coughlan has owned an electric vehicle in Kitchener since 2014.

“And I will never go back,” said Coughlan, who currently drives a 2017 Chevrolet Volt with a gasoline backup generator. “In fact my entire family now has EVs, we don’t have gasoline cars at all.

“In this car I get 120 kilometres of EV range – but I can go anywhere. The Volt was a dual purpose car. In the other battery cars that are here, they are well over 400 kilometres (range). The newer cars that have been built in the last five years, they are all about 400 kilometres and some of them are 500 kilometres. So you’ve got huge ranges available in modern EVs.

“I live and work in Kitchener, so I don’t typically go more than 120 kilometres driving around, so I never burn gas.”

Coughlan uses an application, PlugShare, which provides EV charging station maps.

“It’s available on your computer or phone and it shows millions of EV plugs. And it shows whether you pay, if they’re free, and when they are available.”

People often ask Coughlan whether he is paying huge electricity bills at home.

“This costs me less than $1 a day to get 120 kilometres. So I might spend $30 electricity throughout a month, but I’ve cut my gasoline bill from $150 down to $30 electricity. So it’s five to six times cheaper than the current price of gas.”

In addition to Coughlan’s Volt, the Tillsonburg firefighters were able to examine a Hyundai Kona, Tesla 3 and Tesla Y, a Chevrolet Bolt and Ford Mustang Mach-E.

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“I believe they used the Mustang name to bring in more people,” said Coughlan, “but it does have elements of the actual Mustang. They have three different versions of it … and it will outdo a regular Mustang – the Mach-E GT and it goes like all hell. Any of these EVs will take any gas car up to about 60 km/h. The electric motor wins in all those short cases. These (Teslas and Mustang) are performance cars, so they’ll go like … no matter how fast you go. These other three are more ‘city cars.’ After 60-70 km/h hour the acceleration starts to taper off, not that it can’t do anything normally, but the Bolts, Volts and Konas are not street racing cars.”

Noise is nearly a non-factor.

“They are silent, completely silent. All you hear on any of these cars is the tires rubbing on the road. That’s it, which is really surreal the first time you take it for a spin. After that you get to love it. It’s great, I’m not listening to the rumble of the motor. There’s no vibration in the car … and of course, you don’t realize that (in a regular car) you’re smelling gasoline all that time, you’re smelling exhaust. It’s something I didn’t realize until I owned an EV for a year.”

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