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NZ Unprepared For EV Fire Risks: OIA Documents Reveal – Part 2

In brief
  • Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) lacks formal guidance on EV carriage on ferries amid increasing EV use.
  • KiwiRail implemented some fire safety measures, but these may be insufficient due to ultra hot, toxic EV battery fires. 
  • Safety advisories emphasise the need for large quantities of water to cool EV batteries and the necessity for full personal protective equipment (PPE) for firefighters. 

Click for Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

High risk on ferries

Maritime New Zealand (MNZ), responsible for safety regulations on ships, revealed in an email as recently as September last year that “As far as I know, there’s no formal position/guidance from MNZ on the carriage of EVs.” The email noted that some “class societies” had issued warnings, but the International Maritime Organisation was still grappling with the rapidly evolving problem.

“Formal discussions are due to begin 2024 and [MNZ official] Ian Lancaster may have more details about this. Ian may also have an idea of what KR [KiwiRail] are planning for their new builds.”

The IMO issued interim safety guidelines in 2019 but Anna Nissen of MNZ wrote in a September 2023 email ferry operators had missed the memo:

“I’ve received an observation regarding EV’s on Ro-Ros (roll-on/roll-off ferries) and through conversations it’s become apparent that the industry isn’t aware of the current IMO guidance on the carriage of EV’s.”

Centrist sought information from Kiwirail and was given no data on what fire safety innovations were planned for the now-cancelled mega ferries. However, KiwiRail Government Relations manager Dave Allard told us:

“The growing number of electric vehicles and the risks associated with them is something KiwiRail has implemented controls for.

“These controls include fire blankets designed to deal with EV fires at our terminals and on our ferries, targeted training for staff on EV risks and fire response, using thermal imaging cameras onboard our vessels along with monitoring new developments in EV safety to ensure we have considered the most appropriate measures.

“This is all in addition to the fixed and portable fire fighting equipment already on the ships, which

  • Fixed detection systems over all areas of the ship
  • Fixed Fire Fighting Systems – Drencher Systems
  • Fixed water cannons and water curtains to cover outside spaces
  • Specialist fire fighting equipment to help attack vehicle fires
  • Breathing Apparatus sets with capability to self-replenish air supplies
  • CCTV systems on car decks
  • Regular fire rounds conducted by crew members
  • Fixed CO2 smothering systems.

All that sounds impressive, until you realise that fire blankets are useless if the car is burning brightly by the time the ship’s crew have donned firefighting gear and fully self-contained breathing apparatus because it will be impossible to get close enough. Nor does CO2 smothering work on EV batteries, and the drencher systems can’t get to EV batteries which are underneath EVs.

In an email dated 6 February 2023, Maritime NZ deputy chief technical advisor Kenny Crawford drew his staff’s attention to a 2022 safety advisory from the UK for ro-ro ferries.

The key points from the UK make grim reading. It may be too hard for fire crews to get close to a car burning at 4000C:

NZ Unprepared For EV Fire Risks: OIA Documents Reveal - Part 2 - Centrist
Toxic gases released in an EV fire like this one, necessitates fire fighters don full PPE when attempting to extinguish them.

“The decision to send crew to engage in manual firefighting activities should be carefully considered, especially where there is already fire spread to nearby vehicles, limited visibility or other hazards that would increase the risk to crew undertaking firefighting.

“In case of fire involving the Li-Ion batteries only water supplied in large quantities can cool the batteries. It is possible that this will have to be manually applied as the pressurised fixed water-drench in the vehicle spaces may not satisfy the fire suppression needs for electric vehicles due to the limits of the scope of the spray, though it will help to slow the spread of fire. The use of water monitors to provide water to the vehicle is recommended where available.”

Full PPE recommended to fight an EV fire

Another complicating factor for passengers and crew on ships, and for that matter anyone downwind of an EV fire, is that the gases are so corrosive and toxic they can even burn through firefighters’ PPE:

“Responders should always protect themselves with full PPE, including a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which should be worn whenever at risk of exposure to the smoke from an electric vehicle battery fire, and take appropriate measures to protect crew and passengers downwind from the incident. Muster points should be used that are not exposed to smoke where practicable.

“Procedures should be developed for decontamination of firefighters and handling of contaminated clothes and equipment after any firefighting operation where there was exposure to smoke from an electric vehicle. The smoke produced by a burning electric vehicle may contain hydrogen fluoride, a hazardous substance that may penetrate protective clothing. It is highly corrosive and toxic and will cause chemical burns if it permeates through clothing and comes into contact with skin. 

As such the procedures for dealing with clothing and equipment exposed to battery fires may be more onerous than those exposed to traditional vehicle fires. Crew supporting firefighters in removal of their firefighting PPE should also be equipped with PPE to avoid skin contact with the firefighters clothing and equipment.”

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