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Charging Ahead: ATU Leads on Battery Electric Bus Safety

Late last year, eight Local 265-San Jose, CA mechanics heroically moved a burning electric bus out of a maintenance garage when the flames couldn’t be contained with seven fire extinguishers. One member hung from the driver’s side window to manually release the emergency break as the others pushed the bus outside. Two of the mechanics were taken to the hospital.

While vehicles with combustion engines have always posed a fire danger, lithium-ion batteries, like the one in the San Jose bus, introduce a new set of risks. Electric vehicle batteries store a significant amount of energy, and if the battery is poorly designed or damaged, a process called “thermal runaway” can occur. This can result in intense fires and even explosions. These battery fires burn hotter than petroleum-based fuels, last longer, are harder to extinguish, and can reignite hours or days later. Battery fires also emit dangerous gases like carbon monoxide that can lead to dizziness, loss of consciousness, and even death.

As huge amounts of money pour into the electric vehicle transition, first responders are concerned that funding for firefighter training has been overlooked. A 2023 CBS News survey of the 50 largest U.S. fire departments found that only 38% had hands-on training for lithium-ion battery fires. This raises critical safety concerns for ATU members as transit agencies and school districts continue to add battery electric vehicles.

Firefighters are finding that the easiest way to deal with electric vehicle fires is to stand back and let them burn. Lithium ion-batteries burn with such intensity that huge amounts of water are required to bring them down to safe temperatures. A typical combustion engine fire only requires 500 to 1,000 gallons of water to extinguish, but when a small Nissan Leaf caught fire 45,000 gallons were needed.

Firefighters’ concerns about safety and training with battery electric bus fleets are just as applicable to ATU members who work with these vehicles every day with no safety standards, minimal formal training, and lacking the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE).

In response to these dangers and a lack of industrywide standards for battery electric vehicle safety, ATU has launched our own training programs and has been involved in developing recommended practices for maintenance training through APTA’s Zero Emission Bus (ZEB) Maintenance Training Working Group. ATU’s ZEB awareness training is designed to inform our Locals of what to watch out for as battery electric technology arrives on their properties. It educates our Locals about the types of training that ATU members should undergo so that they can feel comfortable operating and maintaining these vehicles. Additionally, it covers the PPE and tools that should be provided by the employer to keep our maintenance members safe on the job. As our industry evolves, the ATU will continue to push our employers to provide safe workplaces for all transit workers.