Electric vehicle fires and crashes spark Bay Area first responder training

Dozens of Bay Area firefighters received hands-on training on how to respond to electric vehicle highway crashes and fires Wednesday.

More electric cars are on the road these days, increasing the chance that one will be involved in a crash or catch fire

In fact, state data shows one in five new vehicle purchases in California is an electric car.

That's why roughly 40 Bay Area first responders wanted to get a firsthand look at the big batteries and all of their electrical components. They were trained on best practices.

"We should have been doing this many years ago," Capt. Edward Guerrero with Oakland Fire Department said. "So now it’s definitely catch-up time."

In preparation and anticipation for high-voltage related incidents, General Motors is using its electric vehicles and resources to teach. It’s part of the manufacturer's nationwide effort to equip firefighters with tools and knowledge to better respond safely.

"It can’t just be the same old way of putting out vehicle fires," Guerrero said. "It’s more dangerous. You’re talking about more electricity voltage, you’re talking about more water so that’s going to strain our resources, and so we have to train and adapt to this new technology."

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Several vehicles destroyed by fire or involved in a crash test were on display at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton Wednesday. The goal is for first responders to understand where the dangers are and how the batteries and their components can be accessed.

"They’re all marked in orange to make sure they see those," GM Emergency Services Outreach Leader Mitch Patterson said. "We want them to avoid any contact with those."

When there is an electric vehicle fire, the flames will burn much hotter and for much longer. Using more water is the recommended method to battle a battery fire, however, getting enough water on a fire on highways is a challenge because there are no hydrants.

Oakland has added two more water tenders to deal with fires on the freeways. But fire experts also say other techniques could prove effective including letting the fire burn out or eliminating additional fire sources.

"We learned different areas where you’re able to disconnect the 12-volt batteries and knowing the dangers of the batteries that are in the car," Santa Clara County firefighter Nick Nanez said.

Because the emergency calls can be unpredictable, firefighters said this kind of training is step one toward safety.

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"If we try to get in there to mitigate or cut or isolate something that’s high voltage, we could definitely kill ourselves," Guerrero said.

Some manufacturers, including GM, are detailing the hazards and access points in publicly available rescue documents.

"They can use them as a response tool," Patterson said. "They can also use them as a training tool when they go back to their station and work with their crews."

Although no public data has been gathered detailing an accurate number of electric vehicles involved in crashes and fires each year, firefighters say the training is vital.

"It just furthers our chance and hopefully gives us a fighting chance of taking a bad situation and making it better," Nanez said.

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at  brooks.jarosz@fox.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @BrooksKTVU