Conclusion from the ELBAS project: Possible to safeguard ferries against electric car fires

Published: 10.02.23

Fires in electric or hybrid vehicles cars on ferries pose a new, special risk. But it can be handled with the right additions to the existing emergency preparedness on board. This is the conclusion of the ELBAS project, which has been led by DBI.

There is no reason to panic if you are on a ferry where an electric car catches on fire. At least not if the shipping company has dealt with the new reality, where electric and hybrid cars with large batteries can be found on the car deck. This is the short conclusion to the DBI ELBAS project that has been concluded recently.

The purpose of the project was to investigate what happens if an electric or hybrid car catches fire on board a ferry at sea. Because with the large batteries, the new cars do not behave like conventional cars in the event of a fire, but can be harder to extinguish, just as they can also flare up again and emit many toxins in the event of a fire. Furthermore, the project looked into which extinguishing methods and systems are best suited for such a scenario and what training of the crew might be necessary to manage the risk.

"We looked at the human factor, what training and procedures are available today and what knowledge the crew has of the risks and hazards of fires in electric cars. In addition, we examined which solutions are available and on the way to rapid detection and fighting of battery fires in electric cars, which can also be used as a supplement to the existing facilities on the ferries," says Alexander B. Kleiman, Project Manager at DBI and head of ELBAS.

Aims to provide practical recommendations

DBI also carried out a number of tests on a simulated car tyre. Partly to collect data for simulations of electric car battery fires in those circumstances, partly to test the various extinguishing solutions in practice and partly to investigate the needs and benefits of training the crew.

The intention was to provide an overall picture of how a shipping company can best manage fire safety for vehicles with large batteries. As more and more of these cars have come on the road and ferries, the Danish ferries are demanding this knowledge. The conclusions from both the human and technical field have thus become a number of concrete and at times somewhat surprising recommendations for the Danish ferries.

"In the technical area, our simulations show that in some cases it is best to leave the ventilation on the car deck switched on, which is in direct conflict with the usual method, where in the event of a fire you normally extinguish in order not to add oxygen to the fire. However, because the smoke is extra toxic, it can be a good idea. This allows the crew to e.g. get to the fire with a fire blanket or other fire fighting equipment. Whether or not ventilation should be extinguished must be investigated by simulation of a fire on the individual ferry before making the decision," says Alexander B. Kleiman.

Water mist, fire blankets and penetration

The tests of extinguishing methods also showed that ship sprinkler or water mist systems may not be able to extinguish a burning battery – among other things because it is typically located under the car and is shielded from the water. But it is very effective in preventing the fire from spreading and getting out of control.

"The earlier such a system is activated, the better. And they don't have to be able to extinguish the fire as long as they prevent the fire from spreading until the ferry arrives in port and gets help from the professional emergency services," says Alexander B. Kleiman.

DBI also tested a fire blanket to cover the burning car, which was quite effective in preventing the spread of the fire. However, it took up a lot of space with access to the burning car and at least two crew members. Systems for extinguishing batteries that penetrate the battery itself and spray water or other extinguishing agent directly into it proved very effective against the fire in the battery itself, but do not extinguish the fire in the rest of the vehicle.

"At the same time, such systems require special training and knowledge about how to use them correctly, just as you also need to be familiar with batteries. In addition, the space may be too tight on a full car tyre to use the systems. The same applies to portable water mist systems, which on the other hand can be brought very close to the burning car, making them more efficient," says Alexander B. Kleiman.

Exercise makes car firefighter

Today, all crew members receive standardised training in fire fighting, which includes fire fighting exercises. But there is no specific training in putting out a car fire on a car deck.

"In some of our tests, we also involved the crew from a ferry, which provided good training and meant a lot for their readiness. Therefore, we recommend training in realistic extinguishing of a car fire on a simulated car deck. This gives the crew the best conditions for fighting the fire and preventing the spread of the fire, so the ferry arrives safely in port," says Alexander B. Kleiman and continues:

“We also saw that the crew can learn a lot from professional emergency preparedness, and they should therefore conduct drills together. This gives the shipping company insight into different kinds of extinguishing equipment and how they can create the best conditions for emergency preparedness,” he says. The more planning between crew and emergency preparedness, the better.

The crew should also pay extra attention to the subsequent changing. This is because the clothing is contaminated with dust, soot and fluorides. Therefore, the usual undressing sequence should be reversed so that you start by undressing and only then remove your oxygen mask.

A new but manageable risk

The project has also disproved a couple of myths in this area. For example, there were fears that the risk of electric shock from a battery during the firefighting procedure, where you put salt water and stand on a steel deck, was high.

"We saw nothing to indicate that this would be the case. At the same time, there was a concern that the high temperatures from batteries could melt or ignite aluminium from which high-speed ferries were constructed. But as long as the battery does not come into contact directly on the deck or burn for many hours without an insert, that’s no problem. Typically, you will see an effort after a maximum of 10 minutes on a ship," says Alexander B. Kleiman.

On the contrary, the project’s conclusions are generally good news. If the shipping companies relate to the new reality with large batteries on the car deck, it is easy to manage the risk in a sensible manner.

"The project’s recommendation to the shipping companies is simply to carry out a risk assessment, because it is a new type of vehicle on the car deck. We also recommend water mist or sprinkler systems combined with a fire blanket or local fire-fighting by the crew, while also making for the nearest suitable port where the professional emergency services can take over the fire-fighting measures. Even though electric and hybrid vehicles behave differently, it is possible to adapt on-board emergency preparedness to handle the situation and increase safety,” says Alexander Kleiman.

Read more about the ELBAS project HERE and HERE

Read the ELBAS project report HERE

Read more


DBI managed and coordinated the ELBAS project (Electric vehicle fires at sea: new technologies and methods to suppress, contain and extinguish vehicle battery fires on board ships), which was carried out between September 2021 and December 2022. The aim of the project was to investigate and improve fire safety in respect of electric and hybrid vehicles on ferries and present affordable solutions that can be quickly implemented by the Danish maritime sector. ELBAS is part of DBI’s strategic focus on fire safety within Power-to-X and the development of technological solutions that contribute to the green transition.

In addition to DBI, DFDS, Scandlines and Molslinjen A/S participated in the project, which was supported by the Danish Maritime Fund.


Elena Funk
Research Consultant

+45 50 80 74 07