'Not ready for prime time yet': How local officials are preparing and training for electric vehicles

The electrification of American cars isn't just theoretical at this point, and that's why first responders learned how to extinguish EV fires while mayors got tips on powering their future electric snowplow fleets at a recent forum in the suburbs.

Participants from across the U.S. and Canada attended the annual Green Drives Conference organized by Chicago Area Clean Cities May 3, at Northern Illinois University's Naperville campus.

The mainstreaming of electric vehicles is "real, it's here, and we're not going backward," said Melissa Washington, ComEd vice president of external affairs.

The Pritzker administration has set 2030 as the date to put 1 million EVs on Illinois roads, and about $70 million in state plus $149 million in federal funding is earmarked for charging stations.

In one NIU classroom, Illinois Fire Service Institute expert Michael Forrest showed assembled firefighters from the suburbs and across the nation slides of two cars.

"Which one's the hybrid here?" he asked. "Pretty hard to tell, isn't it? One way of identifying is, it might have vents for the battery."

Knowing whether the car spewing smoke on the side of the road is a conventional or electric powder keg is crucial for first responders.

That's because battery-powered engines are different beasts than their internal combustion counterparts.

EV fires can quickly spiral if first responders can't locate the battery case and direct water on it, the National Transportation Safety Board explained in a 2020 report.

And cooling that battery down could take a whopping 40,000 gallons of water, Forrest said.

"Can it reignite after cooling down?" asked one class participant.

"Yes. Good question," replied Forrest, who also discussed options for disabling batteries.

One of Naperville Fire Department Lt. Jeremiah Adeszko's take-aways was "how high the voltage can get on these vehicles. Some can get up to over 800 volts, and I think (Forrest) said anything over 40 volts is what's going to kill you ... so it's important to de-energize the vehicle."

Bringing an EV mindset to a call is key, Chicago Ridge Fire Department Capt. Chris Schmelzer said. "We just have to pay attention to where those high-voltage wires are going so we don't injure ourselves or anyone else."

Schmelzer's a-ha moment? "I always thought an electric vehicle in a lake would have been like a toaster in a bathtub, but apparently it's perfectly safe to approach the vehicle, even if it's submerged in the water."

ComEd made news at the sold-out event by announcing an EV Readiness Program to help Northern Illinois businesses and local governments convert to electric vehicles.

The utility will offer free technical advice, such as calculating power needs, how to charge vehicles and grant-writing tips.

The key is to contact ComEd before you've bought 1,000 electric snowplows, experts said.

"You can't just start digging into the ground and say 'connect it to a meter for me,'" Washington explained. "We want to make sure that the power is there when they need it. We don't want to be on the back end."

The utility is partnering with the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus on the Readiness Program, which also offers financial aid.

For example, Mount Prospect received a grant to install two EV charging stations in its downtown. For more information, go to

Clean Cities is pushing to educate multiple stakeholders quickly on EVs, because "we're not ready for prime time yet," said John Walton, the organization's chairman and a Wheaton resident.

"The grid's not ready. We don't have charging stations where we need them yet," he said.

The nonprofit group will have a bigger platform soon with plans to go statewide.

Gridlock alert

Expect some angst on Lake-Cook Road/County Line Road/Main Street between Hart Road in Barrington and Rue Touraine in Lake Zurich. IDOT is resurfacing the stretch and building new sidewalk ramps. Temporary daytime lane closures will last until October.

You should know

The Illinois tollway will hold a workshop for small business owners on how to bid for projects from 3 to 4 p.m. Tuesday at 206 Genesee St., in Waukegan. The event is part of the tollway's Technical Assistance Program that focuses on expanding contracts with minority and veteran-owned companies. To learn more, go to

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  At the Green Drives Conference in Naperville, firefighters from the suburbs and across the country learn how to extinguish fires in alternate fuel vehicles such as this compressed natural gas cement truck owned by Ozinga. Marni Pyke/
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