Club drives home Tesla differences, challenges for first responders

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With electric cars gaining in popularity across the country, one local fan club is taking it upon themselves to teach first responders the safest and most efficient ways to deal with the new vehicle types.

The CNY Tesla Fan Club is visiting the Rome Fire Department this week to show them the ins, outs and high voltage wiring of the three types of Tesla brand vehicles.

“These vehicles are now starting to become a little bit more popular in this area, and these emergency responders are more likely to encounter them in an accident somewhere,” said Brett Taylor, of New York Mills, one of the leaders of the club.

“We want to make sure that they have the tools available to them to safely interact with these vehicles.”

First and foremost, instead of an internal combustion engine at the front of a typical motor vehicles and the highly flammable gasoline tank in the back, Teslas are powered by a large, high voltage battery pack that runs flat along the bottom of the cars. The battery pack is built to withstand heavy impact, making the body of the vehicle stronger.

Composed of 4,416 lithium ion cells, the battery pack connects to a pair of motors between the front and back wheels, as well as the charging port, which is located where most people pump gas, according to the club.

Firefighters at the class held Monday night learned where and how it’s most safe to cut into a vehicle in case of an emergency.

“The Tesla is a fully electric car, and there’s a lot of things different between the electric car and the gas engines, a lot of different hazards and a lot of different methods of extricating from it,” said Deputy Fire Chief Mark S. Kohlbrenner, who helped organize the training class.

“We train on regular cars all the time. It’s not often we get the opportunity to see one of these cars up close.”

Among the lessons the firefighters learned on Monday was that Tesla vehicles have two batteries: the main pack that powers the car and a 12-volt battery that controls doors, the hood, air bags, lights and other smaller operations. They also learned that the Tesla dashboard is a big screen right next to the steering wheel, and this screen controls almost everything inside the vehicle — which firefighters will likely need to access.

Electric cars are also known for running silently, which is something first responders need to watch for in an accident. Their resting state is also equivalent to neutral in a manual position, so unless the brake is actively engaged, an electric car might roll away from responders.

“A lot of people like to equate sound with a vehicle being on, but that’s not the case with an electric vehicle,” said Alexander Lallier, of Westmoreland, another club member.

“You cannot use audio cues to tell if the car is parked,” he warned. “It’s always a good idea to go into it assuming the high voltage system is active.”

There is a bright red electrical loop wire underneath the hood that is specifically there for firefighters and first responders to cut if they need to shut down power to the vehicle. Firefighters on Monday learned that they need to cut the wire twice just to be safe.

The class also included information on the special door handles in Teslas, and how you need the car keys to be nearby to open the doors. The firefighters learned alternate ways to cut the power and get into the vehicle if the driver is unconscious.

They also learned that high voltage battery fires are “very uncommon”, that a gasoline engine is eight times more likely to catch on fire than an electric engine, Lallier said. If the battery does catch on fire, the flames will shoot out along the ground, as if fueled by an accelerant.

Water is the best tool for fighting a high voltage battery fire, and crews will need upward of 3,000 gallons to put it out. The firefighters were then advised to use thermal imaging cameras to make sure there were no more hot spots in the battery. And all signs of fire, smoke and heat should be out for at least an hour before turning the vehicle over to law enforcement or towing companies.

“We’re not sponsored by Tesla,” said Taylor. As simple Tesla enthusiasts, he said they took it upon themselves to read the Telsa-provided literature about vehicle safety and emergency response measures, and then “distilled it down” into one presentation. They’ve already spoken to several local volunteer agencies, and will return to Rome on Saturday for another class.

“We’re basically trying to spread awareness of electric vehicles in general, and Teslas more specifically,” Taylor stated.

“We wanted to do something that was positive for the community.”

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