Drivers…don’t start your engines!
Electric fire trucks and the future of transportation
May 2, 2023 By Rob Anselmi, Toronto Fire Services
Electric vehicles are the clean future of transportation, or their very production is dirtier than the emissions they’re designed to eliminate…who do you believe? Well, I’m a “booster tank is half full” type of person, so I choose to follow the technology and believe everything we do gets us one step closer to cleaning up the services we provide.
History shows when we transitioned from gasoline to diesel engines in fire trucks, neither were clean. Diesel technology steadily improved until the present, where we have remarkably few emissions, but it came at the expense of high-priced componentry whose function requires burning extra fuel at high RPM for long periods to burn contaminants from the exhaust system. These systems, while effective in highway trucks, pose operational challenges in the fire service context.
Idle reduction technology (IRT) went a long way to improving the situation. The most efficient way to make any internal combustion engine cleaner is to shut it off, period. The first IRT step was to utilize small diesel-powered units that ran everything on the truck (except for the fire pump or aerial device) and shut the main engine down, eliminating all the carbon build-up and subsequent system regeneration caused by idling. I undertook a calculation, comparing aerial apparatus without IRT to identical units with the diesel IRT units, which showed a fuel consumption reduction of a minimum of eight per cent per year, and subsequent carbon emission reduction.
The current industry trend is moving from diesel powered IRT to lithium-ion battery systems that create no emissions or noise at all. In a vocation where so much of the in-service time of a truck is spent idling, not pumping water, and not using the aerial device, you could argue this is enough and stop there, but technology allows us to do so much more now.
Working from the station out, the immediate savings of electric fire apparatus is the elimination of station mounted exhaust extraction systems and all the safety issues, space requirements, repair costs, exterior distribution of the fumes, and the noise associated with direct capture systems. You can now enter and exit the hall without creating emissions, soot, and significant noise, making the entire process safer.
One of the most common maintenance expenses for fire apparatus is the repair and replacement of air brake components. In a busy urban centre, you may get a year out of the rear brake components on a standard pumper truck. The regenerative braking feature of the electric drive motor(s) means deceleration power can be returned to the batteries reducing heat and wear on the brake components. If your fire hall is at the top of a downgrade and you know you’ll need regenerative braking immediately, the system can proactively program the batteries to charge below 100 per cent when plugged in, so you will have “space” in the batteries to accept the additional charge and gain the braking advantage.
Electric motors have the unique ability to achieve 100 per cent torque (the twisting force transmitted to the drivetrain) upon activation, eliminating the acceleration delay felt as a diesel engine attains RPM, so there is little concern of drivability issues.
Anyone who’s been in a full electric or hybrid electric car will remark about the lack of noise, as it’s an unnatural feeling at first. Electric trucks are no different, and possibly more unnatural feeling because you’re used to the noise of a heavy truck. The NFPA rates the maximum allowable Db rating inside the cab of a fire truck, but it’s still significant, even with the cab windows closed. These electric trucks are silent unless the diesel extender system activates, and even then, what you have is a set-speed generator running, using a much smaller diesel engine than would normally be found under the hood.
Imagine a fire scene with several electric trucks supplying the suppression water or responding to an accident. Suddenly you have crews that can communicate better, and the public we serve, who are in the process of having the worst day of their life, feeling less distressed. The sequencing of the on-scene emergency lighting takes it one step further, but that’s a topic on its own.
So, how much of the operation can we anticipate being full electric versus the diesel running? A study for the run area of Toronto Fire Services pumper 332, located in the busiest fire hall in Toronto, found that after 15 runs in a 24-hour period and plugged in when back in station, the truck would operate in full electric mode well over 90 per cent of the time. When you couple that statistic with the anticipated performance of pumping from draft (not a common occurrence in the urban setting) for two and a half hours at capacity, which could translate to three or three and a half hours from a hydrant, it’s anticipated the truck will operate in full electric mode so often that there is a concern that the small diesel engine may not run frequently enough and will therefore require a program timer to exercise the engine.
There are endless publications from chemical engineers, process managers, environmentalists, manufacturers, news reporters, and everyone else that has an interest or opinion regarding the feasibility of electric cars and trucks. All I can advise is to form your own opinion, and consider the following:
- A large percentage of the stored electric battery power is delivered directly to the driveline, with no waste.
- In comparison, a significant amount of the energy in burned fossil fuel (diesel or gasoline) is lost to heat, never used or delivered to the driveline.
- 92 per cent of electricity in Ontario is produced from zero-carbon sources.
I’m proud to work for a city that values the environment and understands the need for large municipalities to lead the development of technologies that will reduce our carbon footprint and improve safety.
Toronto’s Sustainable City Fleets Plan was developed in order to identify any area of the corporate fleet that could be made cleaner through various technologies.
The City of Toronto has mandated a net-zero emissions policy be in effect by 2040, including a tracking process to ensure success. This requires 20 per cent of the fleet to be zero emission vehicles (ZEV) by 2025 and 50 per cent by 2030. It also mandates a 45 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and 65 per cent by 2030. These requirements are outlined in the TransformTO Net Zero Strategy aiming to reduce community-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Toronto to net zero by 2040.
Toronto Fire Services has two NFPA-compliant, fully electric, North American style pumper trucks on order, which will enable us to pilot this technology in the busiest and most complex urban environment in Canada. Likewise, we are also in the process of replacing gasoline-powered district chief response vehicles with hybrid vehicles. Moving forward, all emergency response light passenger vehicles will be hybrid wherever possible and all non-emergency response light passenger vehicles will be electric vehicles wherever possible.
There are certainly challenges ahead with the supply of the materials required to make electric vehicle (EV) batteries, overall supply chain issues, local power grid issues, build times, the cost of electric apparatus versus conventional, and modifications required to fire halls, but these issues can be overcome with cooperation, time, and persistence.
Fire services are also working to develop the procedures and technologies required to combat fires and accidents involving EV batteries and electric vehicles, and this issue will continue to be a top priority across North America.
The automotive foray into electric vehicles is well ahead of the fire market and has essentially made autonomous vehicles a reality. I firmly believe this change across the automotive industry is made in the interest of the environment, a reduction to the overall number of components required to build a car or truck, a reduction in the number of skilled technicians repairing vehicles, and the overall improvement in the quality of componentry available to build vehicles. Fire apparatus moving into the EV realm is simply a natural progression, and as battery technology evolves, I’m not sure we’re that far away from fully electric fire apparatus, without the requirement for a range extender diesel engine, at least in urban environments.
Rob Anselmi is the division chief, equipment and asset management, for Toronto Fire Services. He achieved Master EVT level and is responsible for the design, procurement, and acceptance of all vehicles and most equipment purchased by TFS.
Print this page