The development of technology outpaces legislation. This is seen in, among other things, the fire safety regulations concerning electric vehicle batteries and different energy storage options. Lithium batteries always involve hazards, such as fires, electric shocks and chemical risks. These must always be taken into consideration when building energy storage systems or electric car charging stations.
The Fire Prevention Technology Development Group, coordinated by the Finnish National Rescue Association, has published The Changing Built Environment and New Technologies – an Operating Model, which delves into new applications in battery technology and risk management in fire safety.
Recognition of fire safety as an entity highlighted
Different battery applications are continually becoming more commonplace and the recognition of risks is being highlighted. All fire safety actors need to have more research data on how batteries function. While lithium-ion technology, in general, is safe, no lithium batteries are risk-free. In addition to the batteries themselves, external factors also include risks such as ambient temperature and structural solutions. When anticipating the risk of fire, it is also important to evaluate how people can safely evacuate the fire area.
Fire safety is often only assessed from a single perspective, but battery technology options should identify the complex set of challenges to fire risks. In the future, the fire safety community will require cooperation and deliberation in order to find common guidelines and suitable solutions to improve fire safety.
Such common deliberation is necessary so that risks can be recognised and damage prevented. At present, for example, the technical solutions for electric vehicle charging stations, besides citing statistics, maintain that regulations and structural fire safety requirements are met. And yet fire-safe structures are not the only things that have to be taken into consideration. Therefore, from the outset, they are not meeting all of the risks associated with the introduction of battery technology or installations from the viewpoint of fire safety.
Need for more research data to support decision-making
Fire safety experts and authorities do not yet have enough research data on the risks of new battery applications and, especially, fire risks or on how the fires progress. This also poses challenges for designers when installations should take into account, among other things, the operating environment, how people act, structural solutions and the connectivity of equipment with regard to fire protection technology and building system technology.
Even though electric cars are becoming increasingly popular, they are still a relatively small segment among all vehicles. This being the case, reliable statistics are not yet available. While risks do exist, we have not yet necessarily identified all of them. Guidelines need to be proactive, rather than only being issued once the problem is identified as statistically significant. Therefore, there is an acute need for broader guidelines.
We do not yet know the effect of, for example, the ever more commonplace electric cars on the probability of risks. It would be essential to properly understand the increasingly high-power batteries and charging technologies, as well as how age, manners of charging and external blows affect batteries, as these all can influence the probability of how risks materialise.
Factors that need to be studied further also include the likelihood of a fire spreading as well as the consequences of environmental conditions and structural solutions to fire safety. Also, as regards particularly electric vehicles, fire load differences between electric and internal combustion-engine vehicles have generated much debate. Moreover, additional information is also needed on the character of battery fires so that the fire branch could come up with safe and suitable extinguishing solutions as well as procedures which help prevent or limit fires.
Battery fires are extremely demanding
When it comes to lithium-ion battery fires, thermal runaway is a significant factor. This refers to a reaction within the sealed battery cell which generates high temperatures and can result in the release and ignition of vaporised electrolyte and, ultimately, in violent naked flame. Therefore, the point of departure of fire safety is the early detection of fire and temperature generation. Fire protection technology and risk assessment must have different methods at their disposal in order to detect, prevent and limit hazards.
Battery fires are even more challenging because the chemical reaction inside the battery self-generates the oxygen needed by the fire. This is why such fires are so hard to extinguish and why the fires may burn for an exceptionally long time. For example, when designing extinguishing equipment, one must consider the character of a battery fire and its potential for burning long as these impact the case-by-case designing and operating time of equipment.
When designing the fire protection solution, in addition to detecting and extinguishing the fire, one must also take into consideration the possibilities of anticipating the fire as well as the functioning of the equipment together with other building technology so as to prevent the spread of toxic smoke. It is equally important to evaluate the operating possibilities of the fire department and the methods available to gain control of the fire. Also, the significance of the competence of the personnel at the site and exercises in situation management, is elevated.
Significance of human safety emphasised
Batteries, and the hazards associated with their usage, can be dangerous to people, property and, potentially, the environment. The extremely toxic gases generated by battery fires is an area to which special attention must be paid. As regards the risks to humans, one must also estimate the number of people that might be exposed to them as well as how serious the consequences might be. Then, human behaviour must also be evaluated, which also includes the possibilities of evacuation and people’s capability to escape unhurt.
Designing a fire protection concept demands the full understanding of the site’s structural arrangements as well as joint planning and coherent technical implementation models with other building technology. Furthermore, the development also requires more communication with the general public so as to proactively reduce the probability of the risks materialising and thereby prevent fire damage from happening.
The Fire Prevention Technology Development Group
The Fire Prevention Technology Development Group, coordinated by the Finnish National Rescue Association (SPEK), is a group of experts whose shared goal is to advance safety and to develop the service and maintenance, quality, and technical prospects of fire prevention technology. The group is comprised of experts as well as representatives of fire prevention technology associations and fire safety organisations. The operating models published by the group are generic models intended for support and information, and people working within the field of fire prevention technology as well as other actors can find relevant information from them.