GM wants first responders across Canada to know that there aren’t many differences in dealing with emergency situations with electrified vehicles and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.
To help spread the message, GM is providing hands-on training to first responders in the U.S. and Canada, including a two-day session held recently at Durham College.
Joe McLaine, Global Product Safety and Systems Engineer at GM, and former attack helicopter pilot and West Point professor is now leading the EV first response training efforts. He came to the company to work on autonomous vehicle programs and moved into the role from there.
McLaine's job right now is to help teach first and second responders about electric vehicle emergencies. That means fire, extrication, and safety. In the first year of the program, McLaine says that GM has reached more than 5,000 first responders, each of whom benefitted from the four-hour training program that was developed along with the University of Illinois Fires Service Institute.
The four-hour session is filled with crucial information for first responders and it is very hands-on, but it is different from what you might expect for fire training. Unlike a gasoline car where fire departments can cut a car up and set it ablaze with little financial cost, EVs are still expensive.
But GM still brings hands-on training. The courses include getting to see and experience an EV that has been part of a real-world extrication to see where it has been cut to isolate the battery and remove the occupants.
Part of the training is dispelling myths about EVs. “What we're communicating is that we are putting safe products out there. And we're not the only automaker that is committed to safety. Folks don't realize the rigour and thoroughness with which we design test, validate and produce these vehicles at scale,” says McLaine. This includes industry-standard safety efforts like bright orange covers for high-voltage wiring.
He said one of the myths is that the lithium in an EV battery reacts violently with water. "Water is the only thing that will cool a lithium-ion battery, thermal event, or fire,” McLaine tells us.
That leads to one of the techniques taught in the course. "There are constantly emerging methods and techniques to address lithium-ion battery fires. The reality is that you're trying to get water to the heat source as quickly and effectively as possible," says McLaine. "We make the recommendation to turn the vehicle into a hot tub. If you're spraying water on the bottom of the vehicle or on the roof line or anything else and you're not getting to the source of the heat, you're not doing any good. So, the idea is turning the vehicle if you can into a hot tub, trying to get water as directly into the heat source as possible. That is the preferred technique."
At GM's two-day event at Durham College in Oshawa, McLaine said that more than 500 first responders made it out to one of the four training sessions. But Canada has thousands of smaller and volunteer fire departments that need to learn how to handle EVs. For them, GM has set up a website
. At the site, first responders can sign up for the hands-on training. They can also access special resources from the GM Service Technical College and OnStar Public Safety.
McLaine also refers responders to the Society of Automotive Engineers. SAE standard J2990 is directed specifically at responders and discusses how to protect them from high-voltage vehicle hazards. This includes recovery, storage, and salvage after the initial response. GM has also worked with the National Fire Protection Association and partners with the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.
He also said that good Samaritans arriving first at a scene shouldn't be more afraid of EVs. "There are life-saving measures that even good Samaritans (can do),” says McLaine. These include simple measures like turning the vehicle off and putting it in park. This isolates the high-voltage battery, helping protect it, the occupants, and everyone else.
"Approach a vehicle that you may see smoke or hear hissing or popping sounds with your proper protective equipment and your self-contained breathing apparatus if you're equipped with it,” says McLaine. “But certainly do what you can to save lives. Address a situation and size it up appropriately."