Ferries must be secured against fire in electric cars

Published: 26.10.21

A new challenge on ferries is fires in electric cars, which cannot be handled in the same way as on land. A new Danish project will therefore create operational, concrete recommendations for shipping companies on how to design fire strategies for electric cars on ferries.

A fire in an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle’s battery is a challenge, because it is difficult to switch off the engine and fire can flare up again long after the vehicle has been switched off. A burning battery also emits large amounts of the toxic and corrosive gas hydrogen fluoride, which makes the area dangerous for people and makes the extinguishing work difficult. On land, this has led to, among other things, special extinguishing equipment and specific instructions for responding to fires in electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

But what if it happens on a ferry? How can you fight the fire and protect the ferry, passengers and crew? This is the central question in a new Danish project, ELBAS (Electric Vehicle Fires at Sea: New Technologies and Methods For Suppression, Containment, and Extinguishing of Battery Car Fires On Board Ships).

- In line with the green transition, more electric cars will be added to the roads and ferries, and the demand for charging during crossings will increase. The risk is small, but errors in cables or incorrect operation can lead to fires while charging, just as other cars or equipment in cars can catch fire and spread to electric cars, says Carsten Møller, business developer at DBI – the Danish Institute of Fire and Security Technology .

On-land methods do not work

As the challenge with electric cars is relatively new and growing, and as rules and guidelines in the maritime area are several years in the pipeline, there are no direct guidelines in this area. There are also no major changes to the rules and guidelines for fires in the pipeline that could include how to handle electric cars. There is therefore no prospect of the challenge being resolved in the normal way, with regulations and guidelines, thus, shipping companies must use risk and function-based solutions if the challenge is to be met.

The new project is concrete and operative, and will result in tangible recommendations for how shipping companies can organise themselves and handle fires in electric cars on a car deck.

- On a ferry, you cannot call the emergency services and get them to solve the problem. There are only the crew. And you can't use the known methods from land to roll the burning electric car off the road and ask people to go somewhere else. High-speed ferries are also made of aluminium, which can burn, says Møller.

Meeting this challenge requires a holistic approach. DBI therefore looks at which suitable technical solutions are available and how the crew handles a fire in an electric car on board.

Foam and burnt electric car

In the technical area, DBI examines the existing fire extinguishing technologies to determine how suitable – or unsuitable – they are for electric cars and whether they can be used by a crew on a ferry.

- We know that classic firefighting with water is not optimal. Therefore, we must look at the possibilities of using foam, for example, or specially developed systems in connection with containers, Møller says, elaborating:

- If you're going to assess whether the technical solutions work satisfactorily, you need to know how a fire in an electric car behaves. That’s why we are also burning a used electric car to investigate how a fire progresses if you don't fight it. This will provide data that can pave the way for the modelling of a fire on a car deck, which can be used to visualise and investigate how water, foam and other extinguishing methods affect the fire.

Crew training and on-board drill

On the human side, DBI will investigate what concerns and thoughts the crew has about fires in electric vehicles.

- When we know what they believe and think about battery fires, we can determine what training they need and whether they need to do other drills or perhaps learn a completely new type of fire fighting. In addition, we must investigate whether the crew should load the car decks in a different way, what they see on the car deck, and whether we can help them recognise the small signs that a fire is about to start, says Møller and continues:

- In addition, we will carry out a fire drill on an older ferry to see what happens and how a fire scenario plays out in the real world.

Specific solutions and international interest

With the project, DBI will provide shipping companies with an overview of solutions and specific instructions on how to design a realistic, appropriate fire strategy for electric cars on a ferry. Shipping companies are requesting this knowledge today, and this is not just a Danish challenge.

- All ferries and shipping companies will face this challenge, and we can see that there is international interest in the project. The European Maritime Safety Agency is part of the project’s follow-up group, and we will also involve other international stakeholders in the project’s workshops, says Møller.

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Elena Funk
Research Consultant

+45 50 80 74 07