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We’re Not Ready, So What’s the Rush?

By Bob Ricker, Guest Contributor

On January 29, 1886, Carl Benz applied for a patent for his gasoline powered vehicle, creating the birth of the automobile. In 1901, Connecticut created the first statewide traffic laws. In 1910, New York introduced the first drunk driving laws. In 1950, Nash Motors included the first seat belts in American cars. But it was not until 1968 & 1970 when Federal Safety Standards were adopted and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was established, setting and enforcing safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment. Ultimately, with a product that was efficient, inexpensive, and profitable, it took American industry and the governing agencies nearly 85 years to smooth out the bumps in the gasoline automobile industry. What makes us now think we can do the same with the electric vehicle (EV) industry in 10-15 years?

EVs have been around for nearly 100 years as well, but unlike gas powered vehicles, repeated efforts at an efficient, cost effective or reliable product have failed.

But, regardless of the practicalities, there is a movement in our great State to force Delaware citizens down a path that is nowhere near ready to be traveled: The Electric Vehicle Mandate.

I will not comment on the political aspects of this decision, as I am not in politics. But I do have something to say regarding the negative impact of EV’s on the Delaware Fire Service. I will stick to the facts.

While the Delaware Volunteer Fire Service strives to keep up with the ever-changing job of just being a firefighter, we now find ourselves in a uniquely precarious situation. The electric vehicle industry presents the fire service with challenges that we are not 100% prepared to deal with properly, electric vehicle fires and electric vehicle accidents.

EV fires, most often originating in the batteries, are extremely dangerous, a risk to the environment and, many times, uncontrollable until they burn themselves out. They burn in a jet-engine like fashion and can easily explode, sometimes that happens in a garage and affects the entire dwelling.

In the event of an EV battery fire, fire companies must apply thousands of gallons of water to cool the batteries and to try to stop a very dangerous situation called “thermal runaway”. This occurs when one cell fails in the battery, producing heat, causing other cells to catch on fire and create an uncontrollable increase in temperature. Typically, a gas-powered vehicle fire only requires a few hundred gallons of water to extinguish. Furthermore, the runoff from these thousands of gallons of water can be highly toxic and may require environmental management.

I know there are those who will say that EV batteries are perfectly safe, and in a perfect world they are. But so is dynamite until you light it. Lithium-Ion batteries, which most EVs rely upon for power, are totally safe until a user either over-charges, over-draws, modifies or damages the cells, or the battery encounters a human being who tries to plug their EV charger in a 100’ 16/3 extension cord, because the cord on the charger isn’t long enough to reach around in back of their chest freezer in the garage.

The point is, misuse or failure to properly use EVs have consequences far more serious than we have seen with gas powered vehicles, and require different equipment, tactics, and safe response protocols, for which we have not yet been fully trained.

EV accidents put both the victim and the rescuer at risk and present other multi-faceted problems.
First, to the best of our knowledge, there does not exist across the board standards of the location, routing, color, and size of the high-voltage transmission lines sending the 600 volts of electricity to the drive units of the vehicle. This poses a life-threatening dilemma when the rescuers try to determine where to cut or pry to free a victim from the wreckage. Time is of the essence in these cases, and an incorrect choice or a delayed decision may cause a catastrophic event injuring or killing the firefighter or crash victim.

Finally, we all know the wonders that the “Jaws of Life” have achieved when used to extricate injured victims from a damaged vehicle, but there are serious issues with an EV and using the jaws of life. Spreading, Cutting or Ramming in the wrong place could result in damage to the battery, thus putting the rescuer and the victim further in harm’s way.

While there are several Facebook scribes who have endeavored to suggest solutions to these issues, they invariably lament “this procedure may not work on every EV” or “Refer to the Manufacturers ERG (Emergency Response Guide).” The fact remains there are no nationally approved tactics or strategies yet developed to get seriously trapped Delawareans out safely.

In defense of the auto industry, they are finally making strides to make the rescue process safer, but we still have quite a way to go.

Fortunately, EV incidents, so far, have been few due to the small amount of EV’s on the road but the forced mandate will result in a quick and significant growth in those numbers.

The Delaware Fire Service has always found a way to safeguard those we serve, and I am certain one day we will have the resources, skills and training to properly address EV challenges. But, in all candor, give us a fighting chance, what is the rush?

Bob Ricker joined the Georgetown Fire Company in 1975 and has served as Fire Chief, Deputy Chief, Assistant Chief, Vice-President and Board of Directors and currently serves as Secretary. Mr. Ricker served as Mayor of the Town of Georgetown for two terms, Vice-Mayor for one term and 5 years on the town’s planning Commission. In 1985, Mr. Ricker and his wife purchased the family business, Baker’s Hardware in Millsboro. Together they have transformed a small hardware store into one of the most successful Outdoor Power Equipment dealerships on the east coast.