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As far as the fire service knew at that time, there had been only two structure fire incidents involving a Chevrolet Volt. The reality was that another Volt had burned; and this time it was the Volt that investigators believe did cause the fire. In early May 2011, at a special facility in Burlington, WI, several 2011 Volt vehicles were crash tested as part of the government’s new car assessment program. One Volt, which was used for the 20-mph rigid pole side-impact crash test, spontaneously caught fire three weeks later while parked along a roadway outside of the testing facility.
Investigators discovered that the side-impact crash test that the Volt experienced had physically damaged the cells of the lithium-ion battery and caused the glycol battery coolant to leak. The partial charge left in the damaged battery, along with the leaking battery coolant inside the battery casing, is what investigators state resulted in an electrical fire that not only destroyed the Volt but three other vehicles parked nearby. Because the fire occurred over a weekend in a remote area of the test facility, all the fires burned themselves completely out before anyone even became aware that there had been a fire at all.
NHTSA vehicle and battery crash testing
After the May Wisconsin fire incident, NHTSA began crash testing other Volts to recreate the fire scenario. They also intentionally damaged three Volt lithium-ion, high-voltage batteries from Chevrolet Volts as part of their investigation into the Wisconsin test lab fire incident. During their research, one damaged Volt battery began to smoke and emit sparks when turned upside down during its testing. A second Volt battery, sitting on a rack in a storage shed, spontaneously self-ignited seven days after it had been intentionally damaged. Both the battery and the storage shed were destroyed in the fire.
As a result of this testing, where there was no longer any doubt that in fact the Volt battery was the origin of the fire, NHTSA produced a document containing recommended guidelines for first responder agencies to follow when confronted with a crash-damaged or fire-damaged lithium-ion high-voltage battery. A close analytical look at these protocols will be the featured in Part 3 of this University of Extrication series.
TASK: Upon the conclusion of this series, fire service responders shall be able to develop department guidelines for dealing with liquid-cooled, high-voltage batteries at a vehicle collision or fire-related incident.
Ron Moore will present “The Challenges Of Extrication Involving Vehicles With Advanced Steel” and “Hybrid & Electric Plug-In Vehicle Fire & Rescue Procedures” at Firehouse Expo 2012, July 17-21 in Baltimore, MD.
Ron Moore, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as training chief for the McKinney, TX, Fire Department. He also authors a monthly online article in the Firehouse.com “MembersZone” and serves as the Forum Moderator for the extrication section of the Firehouse.com website. Moore can be contacted directly at Rmoore@firehouse.com.