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Normal fire crews 'learn as they go' responding to calls at Rivian's EV plant

Two men working on a fire hose
Emily Bollinger
The Normal Fire Department has responded to three fire calls at the Rivian plant in Normal this year.

The Normal Fire Department is helping write the book on safety and firefighting at electric vehicle plants, notably with lithium-ion battery fires. Rivian and NFD are working together to navigate the challenges of fire safety at an electric vehicle manufacturer.

“This is all learn as you go,” Fire Chief Mick Humer said in an interview on WGLT’s Sound Ideas.

Mick Humer stands outside a fire house
Emily Bollinger
WGLT file
Mick Humer has served as the chief of Normal Fire Department since 2007. He previously worked for the Urbana Fire Department.

One of the biggest challenges is in relation to how big the Rivian plant is. With a sprawling facility that has more than 1 million square feet, Humer said communication is more difficult than in a standard call.

“That’s always a problem whenever you have large structure, whether be it Rivian or be it ISU, and some of the buildings,” he said. “Some of the radio frequencies won’t penetrate the buildings because they’re concrete or steel or whatever.”

Currently, Humer said NFD is working with Rivian to overcome the challenges in communication. According to Humer, Rivian is in talks to buy repeaters for emergency situations, which would be no stranger to them.

“We are in talks with them to try to work on a solution as far as what type of repeater system they have. A repeater system out there within the building right now they use for their security and just regular plant maintenance and all that kind of stuff,” Humer said. “But we would need to install some special equipment for our ... for our firefighters.”

The repeaters would allow the extension of radio frequencies within the building and allow fire crews to overcome those communication challenges.

Humer said the fire department did employ some history lessons from the time Mitsubishi was operating in the same location, including their supervisor of inspections who used to work at that plant.

“So, he brings a vast majority of knowledge to the situation,” said Humer. “As far as building a plant that is a electric car manufacturer, that’s kind of uncharted territory. I mean, these factories, there’s not that many of them.”

Some walls also have triple thickness of fire-rated drywall, he said, meaning it takes a fire more than two hours to burn through the wall instead of the 20 minutes it takes in a residential house.

Humer said most calls to the plant are ambulance and paramedic calls. This spring, there were a couple fires and evacuations. They were minor fires, but still took a lot of time for the fire department. Humer said the response time to get to Rivian is about 7.5 minutes.

Fire department locker room with fire gear placed in each locker
Emily Bollinger
The Normal Fire Department has responded to three fire calls at the Rivian electric vehicle plant this year.

Another unique safety precaution employed at Rivian is its use of robots built into the fire safety system to monitor, address and de-escalate rogue batteries that pose a fire safety hazard.

“So. there’s two systems talking to each other…and they’ve got flame sensors in some of the areas, but for the most part, it’s just typical smoke detection and heat detection,” said Humer. “So, if an alarm goes off, then the robot goes and grabs it [a battery] and takes it.”

Even specific areas around Rivian are fire-proofed, since there is a possibility an issue could go wrong at multiple points in the line. One area is where the vehicle is being filled with various fluids, where flammable liquids are being sprayed and filled around the vehicle, which is protected with a sprinkler system.

“We’ve physically been there and tested and watched it happen right down to the deluge sprinkler systems in the spray booth, where they have to be flowing water out of the sprinkler heads in half a second if a flame is detected and it goes from being a completely dry, empty spray booth to being completely sprayed and flooded with water in a half a second,” said Humer.

Lithium-ion battery fires and electric car fires are different than those that would occur to a conventional gas-powered vehicle. However, Humer said the strategies for treating the are similar.

“It’s really not all that different, other than there is power running throughout the vehicle and everything, and so there are places and handles within the vehicle that you pull that can shut all the power off to the entire vehicle,” he said.

As for fires with lithium-ion batteries, more heat requires more water, said Humer.

"Water, water and more water, because the only way to put out a lithium battery fire or a car is a lot of water because it just needs to be cooled over a long, long period of time,” he said.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
Ben Howell is a Newsroom intern at WGLT. He joined the station in 2024.