By Earl M. Sweeney, Assistant Commissioner, New Hampshire Department of Safety; and Immediate Past Chair, IACP Highway Safety Committee
There are currently 2.3 million hybrid and electric vehicles on the road in the United States.1 Hybrid and electric vehicle sales increased more than 50 percent in March 2012 over the same month in 2011.2 By 2015 the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has set a goal to add 1 million more, which it hopes to achieve as a result of the increased miles per gallon requirements that Congress has mandated for all new vehicles.3
Most hybrid and electric vehicles are equipped with safety systems that are designed to automatically shut the vehicle down in the event of a crash.4 When a hybrid or an electric vehicle is involved in a crash, however, there still are a number of special precautions of which first responders—including police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and tow truck operators—must be aware to avoid death or serious injury.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in Quincy, Massachusetts, has received a $4.4 million DOE grant and developed vital guidelines to assist first responders to safely resolve crashes involving hybrid and electric vehicles. Initially, NFPA developed and recently released the Electric Vehicle Emergency Field Guide, 2012 edition, which is available at http://www.nfpa.org/catalog/product.asp?pid=EVFG12&cookie%5Ftest=1. In addition to general information on hybrid and electric vehicles, the guide contains separate sections on each currently available hybrid or electric vehicle that would be useful in 9-1-1 emergency communications centers, in emergency response vehicles, and in training programs. Secondly, NFPA offers a free monthly newsletter that can be subscribed to at http://www.evsafetytraining.org/Resources/Newsletter.aspx. Finally, NFPA has just inaugurated its self-paced Electric Vehicle Safety for Emergency Responders Online Course (http://www.nfpa.org/catalog/product.asp?pid=EVT001). NFPA’s efforts to support first responders should be heeded because all hybrid and electric vehicles carry batteries that deliver electrical charges that are dangerous to human life under certain conditions. First responders will confront hybrid and electric vehicles with far greater frequency in the future and consequently must be trained sooner rather than later to know how to deal with them safely.
First and foremost, the initial response procedures for hybrid and electric vehicles are to
- size up the scene from a 360-degree perspective,
- immobilize, and
- disable the vehicle.
Until certain, it is safest to treat a vehicle damaged in a crash as if it is an electric, hybrid, or other alternative-fueled vehicle.5 Look for external badges to indicate a hybrid or electric vehicle—but remember: not all such vehicles have an identifying badge, the badge may have been damaged in the crash or fire, and the vehicle may be an aftermarket conversion.6 Look for clues such as battery vents, stickers warning of high-voltage danger on the trunk or hood, a different set of instruments on the dashboard, and so on. There will be no tailpipe on a pure electric vehicle, but a hybrid will have a tailpipe because it has an auxiliary gasoline engine.
There are several types of electric-powered vehicles on the market, including conventional hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and pure electrics. AC/DC charging stations are cropping up all over the country at shopping malls, gasoline service stations and private homes, and generally deliver between 120 to 600 volts, which depending on the amperage, can hospitalize or even kill someone who comes in contact with it and the ground. They are capable of fully charging the car’s battery pack in 30 minutes to 20 hours.7 If you see one of these plugs lying around in the snow or slush in the winter, don’t pick it up! As charging stations proliferate you will begin to see more plug-in electrics and plug-in hybrids. Some charging stations have been developed to provide “inductive charging” where the vehicle owner simply drives onto a power mat and the charging can occur without cables.8 First responders dealing with problems of a vehicle on one of these power mats or at some other type of charging station should locate the power source and ensure it has been shut down before initiating further action.9
Because a hybrid or an electric vehicle damaged in a crash may start up and run on its own, it must be immobilized prior to working around it.10 These vehicles are so silent you may not hear them approaching, and they are capable of running over a first responder or a bystander at the scene. They have been known to start running on their own while being loaded onto a flatbed truck. Approach a hybrid or an electric vehicle from the side–never from the front or rear.11 If wheel chocks are available, chock the wheels. Next, set the parking brake, and place the shift selector in park.12
The possibility exists that hybrid and electric vehicles that were involved in crashes and burned could reignite sometime later. The concern is that the vehicles could catch fire and burn the buildings in which they are stored while awaiting insurance adjusters, owners, or vehicle autopsies. It takes a massive amount of water to put out such a fire. If one of these vehicles is towed to an impound area, it should never be stored indoors. Store it in an outdoor lot, at least 50 feet away from any other vehicles and away from combustibles.13 If a police car is equipped with push bumpers, it should never be used to push a hybrid or electric vehicle at a speed greater than 8 mph14 and such vehicles should be towed on flatbeds.15
After immobilization, if you are properly trained and equipped to do so, disable the vehicle, both the high-voltage system and the airbags. If the vehicle starts with a proximity key, move it at least 16 feet away from the vehicle.16 If the key cannot be located, quickly proceed with disabling. Most hybrid and electric vehicles are equipped with a fail-safe system similar to those used in some swimming pools, designed to automatically shut the vehicle down in the event of an airbag deployment or crash. Verify the vehicle’s status, so you do not inadvertently restart a vehicle that has already shut itself off. Next, if you are properly trained and equipped to do so, disconnect the battery. However, shutting down the high-voltage and supplemental restraint systems will not discharge the high-voltage battery, which will remain energized.17 Once the vehicle is shut down and the 12-volt battery is disconnected, the proximity key system is disabled. Remember, however, a vehicle’s safety restraints, air bags, and other safety systems may be active for up to five minutes after disconnecting the 12-volt battery.18
Among the hazards of which to be aware when dealing with these vehicles are a build-up of toxic/flammable gases if the battery case is damaged in a crash, shock hazards, skin contact with battery electrolyte, Lithium-Ion battery fire, and re-ignition from a secondary fuel source. The batteries on electric vehicles should not leak electrolyte if damaged in a crash, but they may leak coolant, which can be hazardous.19 Electrolyte from all high-voltage batteries should be regarded as corrosive, toxic, or flammable or all three.20
These vehicles are equipped with safety devices that will shut down the high-voltage system in the event of a short circuit. However, even though hybrid or electric vehicles are designed to be safe in water and not to energize the water surrounding the vehicle, you still should avoid contact with high-voltage components, cabling, or service disconnects on a vehicle that has crashed into the water. You may have to wait until it is back safely on land and drained of water before completing disabling procedures. For example, with Ford and Mercury hybrids, the manufacturer recommends that a submerged vehicle not be removed until the high-voltage battery has completely discharged (microbubbling has completely stopped).21
Whether the vehicle has been submerged or the crash took place entirely on land, do not touch the electric cables. The body shell will not be energized, but the cables are. If you experience an unusual circumstance when dealing with a hybrid and electric vehicle, send a report to the vehicle’s manufacturer, who wants to be kept informed of such occurrences.
NFPA offers several forms of assistance to first responders, who should remember that they never should initiate actions for which they have not been properly trained and for which they are not properly equipped. ♦
1Wikipedia, s.v. “Hybrid Electric Vehicle,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hybrid_electric_vehicle (accessed August 6, 2012).
2Mark Curtis, “Hybrids and Electric Cars achieve Record Sales in the United States,” Auto-Types, April 23, 2012, http://www.auto-types.com/autonews/hybrids-and-electric-cars-achieve-record-sales-in-the-united-states-8548.html (accessed August 1, 2012).
3James R. Hagerty and Mike Ramsey, “Charging Stations Multiply but Electric Cars Are Few,” Technology, The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203405504576599060894172004.html (accessed August 1, 2012); The White House, Driving Efficiency: Cutting Costs for Families at the Pump and Slashing Dependence on Oil, July 29, 2011, 3-4, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/fuel_economy_report.pdf (accessed August 1, 2012).
4National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Electric Vehicle Emergency Field Guide, 2012 ed., 10.
7U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “Vehicle Technologies Program,” DOE/GO-102011-3386, October 2011, http://www.afdc.energy.gov/pdfs/52723.pdf (accessed August 1, 2012).
8Bill Howard, “Inductive Car Charging: No Plugs or Exposed Wires, No Muss, No Fuss,” ExtremeTech, October 25, 2011, http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/101581-inductive-car-charging-no-plugs-or-exposed-wires-no-muss-no-fuss (accessed August 6, 2012).
9NFPA, Electric Vehicle Emergency Field Guide, 16.
10Andrew H. Klock, NFPA’s Senior Project Manager for Training Development, “Electric Vehicle Safety Training for Law Enforcement” (presentation, IACP Highway Safety Committee’s Midyear Meeting, Tucson, Arizona, June 7, 2012).
11National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Interim Guidance for Electric and Hybrid-Electric Vehicles Equipped with High Voltage Batteries, DOT HS 811 574, January 2012, 4, http://www.nhtsa.gov/staticfiles/nvs/pdf/InterimGuide_ElectricHybridVehicles_012012_v3.pdf. (accessed July 31, 2012).
12Ibid.; NFPA, Electric Vehicle Emergency Field Guide, 9.
13NHTSA, Interim Guidance for Electric and Hybrid-Electric Vehicles Equipped with High Voltage Batteries, 5; NFPA, Electric Vehicle Emergency Field Guide, 14.
14Klock, “Electric Vehicle Safety Training for Law Enforcement.”
15NFPA, Electric Vehicle Emergency Field Guide, 14.
18NHTSA, Interim Guidance for Electric and Hybrid-Electric Vehicles Equipped with High Voltage Batteries, 4.
19NFPA, Electric Vehicle Emerg Guide, 19.
20Ibid., 11, 20.
Please cite as:
Earl M. Sweeney, "Hybrid and Electric Vehicles Require Special Handling at Crash Scenes," Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 79 (September 2012): 62&150;63.