Electric vehicles are sparking more training for first responders

TORONTO, Ont. — When engineers at Kenworth brought their hydrogen-electric hybrid Zero Emission Cargo Transport (ZECT) to Mount Vernon, Wash., they were sure to let first responders know the truck was on site, and trained them on how to respond should an emergency arise.

With a 100-kilowatt battery and six hydrogen tanks, it’s not a vehicle that first responders can cut into indiscriminately during a rescue. And it’s not alone in that regard.

Identifying the high-voltage cables that give electric vehicles their get up and go is important to keep fire fighters and other team members safe when completing an extraction. As electric and electric-hybrid trucks of varying designs become more popular, the required training will become more complicated.

While electric cars have been on the road since 2005, Geoff Boisseau, a captain with rescue squad 313 of the Toronto Fire Service, says the technology changes all the time.

High-voltage wires are a bright orange.

Currently electric vehicle training is incorporated into extraction training, and personnel are issued safety guides from the Ontario Fire Service Section 21 Advisory Committee and manufacturers. But there are few industry standards to regulate the design of electric vehicles when it comes to extraction procedures.

Safety guidelines focus first on locating the ignition switch and turning it off immediately. If there is a push-to-start key fob, first responders are told to move it a meter or more away from the vehicle to ensure the engine is disengaged. While gas or diesel-power engines are easily heard, it’s sometimes hard to tell if a quiet electric engine is running.

Kenworth engineers added an additional safety feature in the form of a giant red kill switch. That will cut the power to the truck instantly, and residual power travelling through the battery or cables will dissipate in about two minutes – far less time than the 10 minutes some vehicles recommend waiting. But once the switch is hit, the truck cannot easily be restarted and must be towed to a service center to see if fried circuits can be repaired.

While there are no hard and fast rules for the design of electric vehicles, manufacturers typically place batteries under the chassis. Timothy Ednie, superintendent of education and development at Toronto Paramedic service, says that placement gives medics confidence that treating a patient when they are in the car is safe, allowing them to touch the frame, windows, and seats. Should responers need to use the jaws of life or other tools to free someone, the situation gets increasingly complicated.

Manufacturers each provide their own guides for first responders, and each guide is available online. However, Boisseau says the location of bright orange high-voltage cables can vary by manufacturer and model, and it can be hard to identify different models on sight.

Typically, responders hope to ask the driver which model they have. If that’s not an option, they have to search for identifying tags and look online to identify where it’s safe to cut.

Waiting those 10 minutes for the vehicle to power down, and looking for that information online, takes up time that can be critical to injured vehicle occupants.

Boisseau or Ednie are not aware of any related injuries to date, but the danger is very real as the number of alternative-fueled vehicles increases.

Adding complications are the heights rescuers need to work at on a Class 8 vehicle. Cutting into the frame of a tractor to perform an extraction is challenging. Boisseau says that task is left to heavy rescue squads in major urban areas, like the five in the Greater Toronto Area that surround Canada’s busiest highways.

Currently first responders receive training on electric vehicles as part of their extraction unit when first hired, and through memos and guides like those issued by the Section 21 committee.

Manufacturers have been accommodating as well, looking out for the safety of those that will be disassembling vehicles in a crisis. Toyota donated an electric car to the Toronto Fire Service so members could see how it was put together and learn how best to take it apart when necessary.

Firefighters on the heavy rescue squads in Toronto typically train one day a month in addition to their regular duties and have more extensive training at regular intervals. Those days can be used to incorporate new information about electric vehicles and extraction techniques as well.

As the landscape changes, Boisseau says there might be room to create an entirely separate training unit to teach squads about what to do when working around electric vehicles.


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