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An electric car smokes.

"Emergency. Get out, no matter how."

"There's someone on the hose. Here, get off the hose."

"A vehicle on fire. The vehicle, it could be an electric vehicle.

The fire brigade in Frankenberg, Hesse, is rehearsing an emergency today.

Birgit Großekathöfer, DER SPIEGEL:
"Why are you practising this today?"

Andre Hesselbein, firefighter:
"Well, there are more and more electric vehicles and you have to be prepared for them so that you know what you're doing and know the dangers."

More and more electric cars – in the future, this will also mean more and more accidents involving battery-powered vehicles. Basically, electric cars do not burn more often than gasoline cars, but they do not burn differently. If the emergency services are not aware of the risks, they put themselves and the accident victims in mortal danger.

Christian Kern, course instructor:
"For example, we have additional thermal and chemical hazards, and unfortunately we have to say that they are not without their challenges.

If an electric car catches fire, it has to be done very quickly: If the lithium-ion battery ignites, hydrofluoric acid, one of the most dangerous acids in the world, can be produced. If emergency services or injured persons inhale the smoke, the airways and lungs can be severely burned. One possible consequence: respiratory arrest. In addition, the colorless liquid can attack the skin – with dramatic consequences: there is a risk of circulatory collapse and even death.

The training course therefore prepares 15 firefighters from all over the district for the specifics of e-cars that have been involved in accidents. In various accident scenarios, it is checked whether the emergency services would act correctly in an emergency.

"Yes, exactly. Car against tree. A person trapped."

Very few people here have experience with electric cars that have been involved in accidents. If, for example, trapped accident victims have to be cut out of the car, it is important to know exactly where the power cables run, otherwise the emergency services risk being electrocuted.

"He's got an E license plate. Can you send us the rescue card for QSLO 112E? Please come!"

The rescue cards show where the power cables run along and where the batteries can be switched off. This information can also be found on the websites of the car manufacturers or via certain apps that the emergency services can download.

Johannes Dübbert, Volunteer Fire Brigade
»Everything is different. Every vehicle is different. It used to be a combustion engine, there was an engine, an exhaust system. It's currently a different standard for every electric vehicle."

"Door opens."

For the time being, everything has been done right, but the danger has not yet been averted.

Christian Kern, course instructor:
"Can it be roadworthy in this condition? «

Gordon Kalhöfer, volunteer fire brigade:
"With the vehicle, we just don't know when we arrive, whether it can still roll away or drive away or not, because you can't hear it. We then explored it and luckily the front of the display said that »Highvoltage disabled«. This means that the vehicle was no longer roadworthy."

How important it is to check whether the car can really no longer roll off is shown in this video from the USA. A firefighter tries to stabilize the car, but the driver accidentally hits the accelerator pedal. In the case of a combustion engine, the helpers would have heard whether the engine was still running.

Back to Frankenberg in Hesse, where the firefighters are also familiarized with the technical equipment of an electric car. This is to prevent them from touching something that could be electrified in the event of an accident.

Christian Kern, head of the training: "Basically:
Hands off orange if you want to remember it very easily. And as long as you don't touch an orange wire, you can't have an electrical accident."

But there are other sources of danger: A defective battery can ignite even hours or days after an accident. This is because a lithium battery cell contains a so-called separator film. If it is damaged in an accident, the negative and positive terminals can touch each other. A short circuit occurs and with it so much heat that the battery cell ignites. And because there are several cells in a battery block, all of them can gradually ignite.

This is what happened in a hall in Burghausen with an electric bus. The fire brigade has no chance to save the vehicle, but lets it burn down in a controlled manner. Fighting burning batteries with common extinguishing methods doesn't work. Compared to the petrol engine, many times more extinguishing water is needed to cool down the battery and extinguish the fire. That's why the fire brigade uses a construction waste container here – as a spent fuel pool, so to speak.

Christian Kern, head of the training:
"Overheating. What does that mean?"

Firefighter, volunteer firefighter:
"It's too hot. Gases could be escaping now."

If there is a threat of fire, it has to be done quickly. High voltage, reactive metals in battery blocks – and water: an explosive mixture that could put both victims and helpers in mortal danger.

This is shown by a fire brigade operation in Saxony-Anhalt: Here, highly toxic hydrofluoric acid was produced during extinguishing. A Deutsche Post electric vehicle caught fire, the delivery woman was able to save herself from the car and was uninjured. When one of the firefighters feels burns on his hand and another colleague's boots come off, the car fire turns into a chemical operation and the entire environment has to be cleaned at great expense.

And how is the exercise in Frankenberg going?

Andre Hesselbein, volunteer fire brigade:
"It was very informative, I learned a lot and the fear was taken away from us a bit."

Gordon Kalhöfer, volunteer fire brigade:
"We still have to work our way around, but it was definitely good and we will certainly be able to pass on our fire brigades as multipliers."

By 2030, at least 15 million electric cars are expected to be on Germany's roads. This is stated in the coalition agreement of the traffic light government. The need for further training – especially for volunteer fire brigades – will therefore increase in the future.