Electric Cars Pose New Challenges, Risks for First Responders

It’s not on the road yet, but already firefighters are tearing apart the Chevy Volt in the name of safety.  Literally.

In a training session at the International Association of Fire Chiefs Fire-Rescue International Conference at McCormick place, Chicago firefighters on Thursday used the "Jaws of Life" and an array of special tools to tear down the new electric vehicle to show other first responders what they need to watch out for when dealing with advanced electric vehicles.

The National Fire Protection Association estimates that by 2015, there will be more than a million advanced electric vehicles on the road.

In the event of an accident, first responders now have to worry about the risk of electric shock, handling new batteries and extinguishing fires on those vehicles as well as rescuing any passengers on board.

"Every year they are coming out with something new," said Chicago’s new Fire Commissioner Bob Hoff.  "Firefighters have to stay on top of new technology to save civilian’s lives, but it can also save ours."

For fuel economy and crash safety, many of these vehicles use lightweight, but high-strength boron steel. Traditional saws can’t cut through it, so firefighters have to know where the built-in cut points are.

They also have to know how to disengage electrical power systems.

The electric motor in the Volt packs a 300 volt charge, so first responders have to know where they can -- and especially where --  they cannot cut on an electric car.

Those systems are designed to shut down in the event of an accident, according to Chevrolet’s Safety Director Gay Kent. However, she said there is "no substitute for education and training." 

Chevy and On-Star are working with the NFPA on their electric vehicle safety training program.

Airbags may save lives, but they too can be a danger to firefighters if they are not deployed. Rescue instructor Ron Moore told session attendees they must pull off the interior trim on new vehicles to look for the stored gas inflators.

The changing nature of advanced electrics and hybrids makes training like this session essential, Hoff said.

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