Chicago-area firefighters learn how to handle electric vehicle fires

With more electric cars on the road, it’s likely more of them will be getting involved in accidents.

However, many first responders are unsure how to handle an accident involving an electric vehicle, especially if there is a fire. So on Wednesday, they got a chance to go to school.

About 200 firefighters and first responders from all over the Chicago area gathered at MABAS headquarters in Wheeling to get hands-on training on how to respond to an accident involving a battery-powered car.

"There are a lot of misconceptions," said General Motors engineer Joe McLaine, who led the training seminar. 

McLaine said for the most part, there is little difference in accidents involving electric cars and gas-powered cars.

But in cases when the ion lithium battery catches fire, many first responders mistakenly avoid using water or use foam instead. 

"That’s one of the misconceptions, that water can’t be used," said McLaine. "But water is the only thing that will be used for lithium ion fire situations."


Lots of water, in fact. 

However, putting it in the right place is critical, so that it is not piercing or puncturing the battery. 

"You want to put it at the heat source," said McLaine. "That means filling the interior of the vehicle so that the water gets into the battery pack."

General Motors is conducting safety seminars for first responders all across the country. 

Wayne Smith of the Elgin Fire Department was asked whether the training will change the way they respond to accidents involving electric vehicles.

"I think it will," Smith responded. "It gives me a new perspective on how to respond or how to fight a fire or accident we have in one."

The training is becoming more important as General Motors says it plans to produce and sell at least one million electric vehicles a year starting in 2025.