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Emergency crews prepare to deal with electric-car fires

| Monday, Feb. 13, 2012

Though the Chevrolet Volt has fueled heated debates in the political arena, emergency responders are more concerned about preventing fires when it and other electric cars are involved in crashes.

Brad James, deputy fire chief at Eureka Fire Rescue EMS, said firefighters know of the risk and numerous classes are scheduled in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties including a vehicle technology class planned for Allegheny County.

In addition, the Westmoreland County chiefs Association is sponsoring a class in May.

"We have had numerous seminars. We've looked at information on the computer and we have some training tapes, but we really haven't had a car to look at," James said.

"Of course, there are challenges and safety issues with all hybrids," he said.

Randy Brozenick, Armstrong County's public safety director, said his office forwards information to fire departments as received from car dealerships. The department also tells firefighters about information available on-line.

"All hybrids offer challenges," he agreed.

Butler County Assistant Emergency Director Robert Young said firefighter training is scheduled for the spring. "It definitely can be a risk unless its handled properly," he said.

Mark Marmo, chief of Lower Burrell No. 3 Fire Company, said two of the department's firefighters attended a special training program at Dayton, Ohio to learn about safety precautions to deal with the Volt and other hybrids.

Chevrolet provided a Volt that was taken apart to show firefighters how to quickly and safely deal with the car, Marmo said.

Other firefighters are looking at training materials and some will attend local classes, he said.

"You just can't cut into the Volt even if it's to help someone," he said.

Paul Gurcak, hybrid technician at Sun Chevrolet in McMurray, is working to help firefighters understand dangers specific to electric cars.

"You're working with high-voltage electricity," said Gurcak, 54, of Finleyville. "When these guys show up, they need to know how to protect themselves when doing extractions. You don't want to make it worse."

Gurcak partnered with the Elrama Volunteer Fire Department in Washington County last month for a training session that drew about 60 people from seven local departments. Elrama Capt. Frank Culver said since then, more departments have contacted him seeking similar sessions.

"No one knew what to do," Culver said.

Before extracting anyone who might be trapped in the car as a result of a wreck, firefighters must disable the low-voltage cables in the car's trunk. Those cables also control the high-voltage cables, so cutting them decreases the chance of fire.

Gurcak said the safety measure is used primarily when a crash leaves people trapped in the car, not for fender benders. Drivers should treat electric cars as they would any vehicle after a crash, he said. "There's nothing the consumer needs to do. You don't need to run away from it" for fear of fire, he said.

Gurcak uses a Volt to give firefighters firsthand experience with an electric car. The Volt came under criticism last year when battery fires twice erupted at testing sites. No fires occurred elsewhere, but the tests prompted a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation.

The two-month investigation ended last month with the safety agency concluding the Volt and other electric cars don't pose a greater fire risk than gasoline-powered cars. All Volts, however, will undergo retrofits to better protect the battery from damage in crashes.

Besides demonstrations, many firefighters and others keep tabs on rescue efforts through magazines, the Internet, blogs and emails involving emergency response, said Dan Stevens, spokesman for Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety.

Since the electric vehicle became widely available last year, Sun Chevrolet has had two to sell. One has sold, Gurcak said.

Louis Chiodo, president of the Vortex Electric Vehicle Association in Sewickley, said his organization is supportive of the firefighter training, which he said is becoming common across the nation.

"It's not a government mandate that directs manufacturers to give direction to first responders," he said, adding that he's pleased the companies are opting to act on their own. "We see it as a very good thing."

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