As electric vehicles appear in greater numbers on U.S. roadways, NFPA takes the lead in training emergency responders and helping prepare the nation’s electrical infrastructure
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2011
By Fred Durso, Jr.
In a sunlit building at the New York City Fire Academy near Manhattan one recent morning, about 20 firefighters and other emergency responders from the NYC metropolitan area huddle around a mangled Chevrolet Volt. The metallic-colored car, or what’s left of it, is devoid of doors and a roof, and the group is carefully examining the automobile’s internal components, especially its complex electrical system.
The Volt is General Motors’ new entry into the burgeoning electric vehicle (EV) market, and the first responders are getting a course in EV safety. Representatives from NFPA, Chevrolet, and motorist-assistance company OnStar, the groups that organized the half-day training on the Volt’s key features, circle the car and pinpoint the orange-colored, high-voltage wires that should not be cut during an emergency; interrupting the car’s 360-volt electrical system could result in serious injury. NFPA consultant Jason Emery, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, demonstrates how to disconnect the high-voltage system by turning the ignition button to "off" and slicing the black, 12-volt cable in the trunk that also cuts power to the airbags. If a vehicular accident prohibits access to the cable, Emery instructs the group to pull the manual service disconnect cap underneath the accessory tray between the front seats.
Also concealed is the Volt’s power plant: a 400-pound (181-kilogram) lithium-ion battery bolted to the car’s underside. Fully charged in about 10 hours using a 120-volt outlet, the battery can get up to 50 miles (80 kilometers) on a charge. The Volt also has the option of running on a gasoline generator if the battery is discharged.
Emery says the battery can’t spontaneously combust but notes that the battery’s chemistry, which is becoming increasingly popular in advanced electric-drive vehicles, is highly flammable. "If the battery is heated up enough [during a vehicle or structure fire], it could start to burn," Emery says. "You’re unable to get water inside the battery. Dousing it with copious amounts of water is the only way to stop propagation."
The Volt trainings, which took place in five U.S. cities last year, were the forerunners of a comprehensive emergency-response training program that NFPA will debut in April. The timing is critical, since car manufacturers are banking on EVs becoming as popular as their hybrid cousins. The United States, now the world’s second-largest hybrid market behind China, has two million hybrid vehicles on the road, according to HybridCars.com. Chevy debuted its Volt, a combination extended-range/EV car that was named Motor Trend’s 2011 Car of the Year, in five U.S. cities last year, and the vehicle is now arriving at dealerships across the country.
Similarly, Nissan rolled out 50,000 of its fully electric Leaf, which gets up to 100 miles (161 kilometers) per charge, in five cities last year, and Ford will offer the Focus Electric, with mileage and electrical capabilities similar to the Leaf’s, in 19 cities later this year.
Preparing first responders for next-generation EVs is just the start. NFPA is also involved in a variety of efforts to ensure that the nation’s electrical infrastructure can support this emerging technology, as well as its related safety concerns. Organized by NFPA and the Society of Automotive Engineers International, the U.S. National Electric Vehicles Safety Standards Summit in October was the first step in developing an action plan to safely implement the rapid implementation of EVs with assistance from the codes-and-standards and automotive communities.
The event identified clarifications to NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code® (NEC®), needed to support a potential increase in the number of charging systems, the equipment that connects the car to an electrical supply, typically with a charging connector. Those systems range from home units to standalone systems, some resembling futuristic gas pumps, designed for roadside use. Other concerns related to charging systems, including clarification of their power usage, impact on utilities, and inspection and maintenance, makes it apparent that the success of the EV will depend on a collaboration of constituents, working toward safe implementation of the vehicles and their supporting infrastructure.
"The whole electrical world is well established through the NEC, but it’s alien to many of the auto manufacturers," says summit attendee Casey Grant, research director for the Fire Protection Research Foundation. "This was a real eye opener for some of them."
NFPA received a $4.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) last year to develop its Electric Vehicle Safety Training Project. Similar to the Volt training, the program will use videos, classroom-training courses, self-paced online programs, and simulations to help first responders, including emergency medical technicians and law enforcement officials, navigate the science and components of EVs, plug-in EVs, and hybrids. Partnering car dealerships may supply EVs during training to help emergency responders understand the components.
An EV’s electric motor is powered by batteries that can be recharged by plugging them into household receptacles. Hybrids have two power sources: batteries, along with an energy conversion unit such as an internal-combustion engine. Plug-in hybrids also use these power sources, except that the batteries, like those of an EV, can be charged from an electrical outlet.
Those distinctions will appear on the project’s website, evsafetytraining.org, which is scheduled to include all training materials by April. The site will also serve as a central repository for all EV-related training materials, and General Motors, Ford, Nissan, Tesla, and others will provide content to the program’s e-learning component. Another website highlight will be the Emergency Field Guide Database, which will list details of every EV produced since 2008. First responders will be able to identify badging, no-cut zones, airbag locations, and power-down procedures specific to each vehicle.
"There are approximately 185 makes and models of electric vehicles on the road today," says Andrew Klock, NFPA’s senior project manager for the program. "They vary widely in high-voltage components, location of these components, and battery chemistry. Through our training, first responders will have a good understanding of how to approach all categories of electric vehicles."
Another vital component of the training is showing how anticipated special hazards of EVs have been addressed by engineered safety. For example, some emergency responders have expressed concern that the car’s high-voltage wiring will hamper extrication of people trapped in the car. Emery points out that the wiring has been placed in areas not typically considered cut points. There’s also a concern about being electrocuted if an EV is submerged in water, but Emery says the car’s safety systems are designed to prevent the car from energizing the water, even after a crash.
An actual scenario might involve a fire at a charging station, which distributes electricity to the car’s battery via a charging connector. The training gives an overview of the electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) — everything between the charger on the vehicle and the building wiring system — and the three primary levels of charging available through these systems. Level one provides charging through a typical 120-volt, household alternating-current (AC) plug and takes anywhere from 8 to 20 hours to recharge a battery. Level two uses 240 volts and can charge a battery in about half the time as its level-one counterpart. And level three — still in development and not intended for households — uses up to 480 volts to replenish a battery the quickest, in as little as 15 minutes by some estimates.
Reviewing all aspects of the project, including an eight-hour, train-the-trainer classroom component offered at participating fire academies and other locations, is a 14-member technical panel representing the emergency-response community.
Back at the training session at the New York City Fire Academy, the group considers another important EV component: the Volt’s charging connector. A Chevy engineer points out the device, an orange-colored wire with rounded black heads on each end that links the car to an electrical outlet. If the car is charging during a house fire, the engineer tells the group, emergency responders should unplug the vehicle and turn off the home’s power supply, as an added precaution.
How to safely handle an EV during such scenarios was of great interest to Gary Schellman, a firefighter from the Yonkers Fire Department, who was concerned about how to extinguish EV batteries on fire. "Electric vehicles are really new, and every fire department should get a taste of what they’re all about," says Schellman. "The training relieved me of the anxiety of what to do versus what not to do during a fire or accident."
Without an electrical infrastructure and necessary charging components to support the coming EV wave, these cars could roll to a literal standstill. The DOE, which tracks the number of U.S. charging stations available to the public using its Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicle Data Center, indicates that only about 600 such stations are currently operating nationwide. But it also anticipates that another 8,500 public stations will become operational over the next two years, according to Jen Stutsman of the DOE’s Office of Public Affairs. Roughly 12,000 systems will be installed in private residences.
While it’s uncertain which utility companies or authorities having jurisdiction will manage specific roadside chargers, the National Electrical Code, since its 1996 edition, has included provisions on installing EV charging systems. Revisions incorporated into the 2011 NEC related to these systems are mostly definition-based, including the clarification of a plug-in hybrid EV and rechargeable energy storage systems, or power sources that can be charged and discharged.
This forward-thinking approach has led NFPA to form an EV task group composed of NEC panel members. The task group will make sure through their discussions that the code allows known charging schemes to operate and that new technology is addressed. "The code allows installation for any electric vehicle charging system that is out there right now," says Bill Burke, NFPA’s division manager for Electrical Engineering. "The problem is that we need to be mindful of what’s coming down the road."
The recent U.S. National Electric Vehicles Safety Standards Summit, which took place in Detroit, also initiated dialogue between the codes-and-standards community, car manufacturers, and utilities, part of an effort to develop an action plan for the safe implementation of EVs. Outlined in the report produced by the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) and available at nfpa.org/foundation, the summit’s significant themes were battery hazards, EV features that address emergency responder concerns, and the nation’s electrical infrastructure. Attendees who participated in breakout sessions, for example, expressed concern that EVSE installers in certain jurisdictions may not be licensed electricians, says Grant of the FPRF. This concern may intensify as more EV owners opt to install level-two chargers in their homes — that is, if homes are able to support such systems.
Ted Bohn, chief engineer from Argonne National Laboratory, a DOE-managed facility that develops benchmarks for certain advanced electric-drive vehicles, foresees possible electrical infrastructure issues related to EV power needs, such as transformer blowouts. "In some communities, there’s not going to be one electric vehicle, but 10 of them charging and asking for maximum capacity," says Bohn, who attended the summit and is researching infrastructure upgrades that would allow direct communication between the EV and the power grid to determine charging capabilities. "Think of this in terms of an Internet connection. If you’re the only one online, there’s not an issue of bandwidth. But suddenly, at five o’clock, everyone logs on and bandwidth is divided up. Everything goes slow.
The same thing applies to electricity. Instead of going slow, you’ll start to overload the infrastructure."
NFPA is already working on the next steps. NFPA and SAE anticipate another summit later this year, according to Christian Dubay, NFPA’s vice-president of Codes and Standards and chief engineer. "That event will serve as a checkpoint to make sure the gaps that were addressed during the first summit are being filled," Dubay says. NFPA also plans to present an overview of its EV Safety Training Project at the Fire Department Instructors Conference, to be held in Indianapolis March 21–26. In the meantime, the NEC EV task group may consider clarifying requirements for the ongoing maintenance of EV charging stations, including how EV connector cables will be inspected and replaced when necessary. Other concerns the group may address include facilitating installation guidance for EV charger contractors; developing different degrees of protection and wiring installation for the various charging levels; and dedicating a specific circuit in homes to these chargers. "The rationale is that when you plug something in, you have no idea what circuit it’s connected to," Burke says. "If the charger is not on a dedicated circuit, it may tend to trip the circuit breaker if you are using another appliance."
FPRF has received a request from the NFPA 1936 Powered Rescue Tools, Fire Department Rescue Tools Committee to investigate the devices’ ability to cut high-strength steel, which is appearing in newer cars, including the Volt. Certain tools will cause the steel to "break" rather than make a clean cut; others can’t slice through the new-generation steel. As a separate topic, EV batteries may be the subject of research projects addressing the safety of their storage and afterlife. "There was a very loud, collective question asked by enforcement officials at the summit about how to handle the battery when it’s not in the vehicle," Grant says.
Identifying potential dangers related to electric vehicles, as well as collaborators to help address those issues, has been a key early step for NFPA, say Grant and others. With that preliminary work completed, safety organizations now have a road map to follow as the EV market matures. "We have a much clearer perspective on the big picture," Grant says. "Now we can really go to work on these issues."
Fred Durso, Jr., is staff writer for NFPA Journal.
In 2009, President Barack Obama championed a $2.4 billion initiative, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, designed to accelerate EV research and development efforts. NFPA, which received $4.4 million last year for its emergency response training program, has decided to partner with other institutions designated to create similar programs and curriculum-based EV training.
"The first responder grant recipients elected NFPA to lead a collaborative effort in developing our respective training programs," says Andrew Klock, NFPA’s senior project manager for the program. "We look forward to working with these organizations."
The 13-member group consisting of universities, community colleges, and training consortiums began discussing with NFPA last November how to best share the components of the emergency-response training they were each developing. Since NFPA has taken the lead in developing this instruction, many of the institutions are expected to pull heavily from NFPA’s program.
Academic courses are also being developed. The Missouri University of Science and Technology, for example, has developed a new advanced-vehicles systems course, and five additional engineering courses will be modified to include information on advanced electric-drive vehicles. Colorado State University (CSU) is developing a similar curriculum on EV design and has partnered with Arapahoe Community College to incorporate EV technology into the automotive-technician curriculum. Headquartered at West Virginia University, the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium, which consists of national training centers promoting clean energy and Earth-friendly modes of transportation, is currently developing teaching materials on EV basics for high school curricula.
Other NFPA project collaborators include Purdue University and its partner, Ivy Tech Community College; the Missouri Safety Center, which provides training and data on highway traffic safety; and CSU Ventures, a nonprofit affiliate of CSU focused on applied research.
"The concept of being proactive is sort of rare in the safety field," says Terry Butler, director of the Missouri Safety Center. "While the DOE encouraged partnerships, they didn’t necessarily talk about consistency of messaging. NFPA is making sure the message is unified and consistent."
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|Our EVs, Ourselves
From safety training to infrastructure: How NFPA is preparing for the coming wave of electric vehicles.