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Ala. FFs call attention to li-ion battery safety after recent EV fire

Birmingham Battalion Chief Clay Hendon said firefighters everywhere are challenged by lithium-ion battery fires


Pine Level firefighters were dispatched at 11:14 p.m. Monday, Dec. 25, 2023, to a traffic crash with a reported vehicle fire.

Carol Robinson/Carol Robinson

By Carol Robinson

AUTAUA COUNTY, Ala. — Fires involving electric vehicles, and their batteries, have recently attracted attention across Alabama in part, because the public is not aware of what it takes — and doesn’t take — to put them out, a Birmingham firefighter says.

On Christmas night, Pine Level firefighters responded to a scene on I-65 where a Tesla Model Y crashed and burst into flames.

Firefighters said battling the blaze required more than 36,000 gallons of water and took a while to get under control.

RELATED: Ala. FFs use 36,000 gallons of water on Tesla fire

“This was a first for Autauga County,’’ the Pine Level Fire Department posted on Facebook. “Electric vehicle fires are unusual and present unique challenges and dangers to firefighters.”

“These vehicles can reignite hours or days after they are first extinguished.”

Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service Battalion Chief Clay Hendon said firefighters across the country – and the public as well - are learning to contend with the challenges presented by electric vehicle fires.

Fires of any sort that involve lithium-ion batteries, or L-ion, which includes electric scooters, vacuum cleaners and even Barbie Jeeps, Hendon said.

Technology and manufacturing are far ahead of public education, and that gap somehow needs to close. But simply, he said, dousing a Li-ion battery is the wrong way to go, not because it’s an electrical fire but because the batteries are so tightly encased, that the water doesn’t get to them.

“Pine Level caught a bad rap because of the way the handled it, but they did exactly what the (guidelines) told them to do,’’ Hendon said.

In electric vehicles, the L-ion batteries are part of the structural component of the car. They are in the floor pan and encased in a steel box that Hendon calls a “vault.”

“It’s to protect it because if the battery gets impacted, say if you run over road debris, and it pierced the battery box and hits those cells, it will immediately catch on fire,’’’ he said. “Also, if you have a wreck and there’s damage to the batteries from the impact, they will catch on fire.”

“So, they put them in this box to protect them. But that box also prevents us from having access to them to get water on them when they do catch on fire,’’ he said. “We’re completely isolated from it. It’s a double-edged sword.”

Knowing that, Hendon said, first responders were trained to life the car up on its edge and then spray water on the bottom of the car to cool the box. The problem was that doesn’t cool the box enough, so it won’t put the fire out because it’s an ongoing chemical reaction.

“There have been reports worldwide from departments using anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 gallons of water on these fires and they’re on scene for up to 10 hours sometimes and it’s because they’re not actually getting water on the fire,’’ he said.

Additionally, putting water on the batteries quickly creates a hazardous material condition.

“The smoke and the gases that these batteries give off is extremely toxic,’’ he said.

The batteries give off hydrogen fluoride. When combined with water, that converts to hydrofluoric acid so now that flowing water is sending hydrofluoric acid in the soil and on the ground.

“Up until recently, nobody would take a stand and say that because of the political aspects of it,’’ he said. “The ATF has actually done some studies where the fluoride levels they tested were actually in the lethal range and it was very acidic.”

“Now we’re starting to learn that putting water on these things is not the right way,’’ he said, “and you’re wasting your time anyway.”

The best practice from industry leaders is to let them burn up - just stand around and protect the exposures when it’s safe to do so.

“They’re all trying to direct us to letting it burn if it’s safe to do so,’’ he said. “If you let it burn, it’ll do so in about two hours. If you’re putting water on it, you’re delaying the inevitable.”

There have been departments that thought they were successful by putting them out because several hours and thousands of gallons of water into the incident, they’re not seeing any signs of fire and not getting high thermal temperate readings, Hendon said.

But the fire starts in one cell and propagates and there are thousands of cells in the battery. If the fire is only partially extinguished, it’s still a damaged battery and very susceptible to catching fire again.

If one gets damaged, it goes into thermal runaway and then it spreads to every battery in the box. Thermal runaway is basically when the L-ion cell enters an uncontrollable, self-heating state.

But letting them burn, Hendon said, could create a different kind of problem.

“When we start standing around and watching them burn, then the perception of the community is, ‘What are they doing?’ Why are they not putting it out?’’’ he said. “That’s something we have to address from a public education standpoint. If you see us doing this, this is why.”

“You call the fire department to put things out,’’ he said, “and this is the one thing we’re not going to put out if we can.”

Another concern is the electric scooters or e-bikes.

Across the country, over 200 micro-mobility fire or overheating incidents have been reported from 39 states, resulting in at least 19 fatalities, according to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, according to the New York Times.

RELATED: Li-ion battery fires: Barowy and Goldfeder tackle the ‘spaghetti’ of tactical considerations

But the organization emphasized that the problem is particularly acute in densely populated areas like New York City. In London, lithium battery fires are the fastest-growing fire risk, with 57 e-bike fires and 13 e-scooter fires this year, according to the London Fire Brigade.

In New York, the publication reported in June, lithium battery fires have killed 13 people at that point including four people in a large blaze that started in an e-bike store in Chinatown.

A total of 23 people have died in battery fires since 2021. This year, there had been 108 fires so far, compared with 98 fires for the same period last year, The Times reported in June.

“We have the same products here that New York has, it’s just a smaller scale because of the population,’’ Hendon said.

But the number of people in Birmingham riding the electrical scooter is rising, especially if they live in lofts and condos. Typically, an owner in that environment will take their scooter or electric bike upstairs to their residence, often via the elevator.

And they often leave them near the front door, which could block their exit should a fire erupt.

“So, we know we have these devices in the high-rises and if we can’t get the information out to people who own them, we’re going to start having high-rise fires here,’’ he said.

Hendon said so far, Birmingham only has had one scooter fire, and that was in front of the McWane Center last year.

L-ion batteries are prevalent in most everything these days.

“In the consumer end for homes, people don’t realize how many they have now,’’ he said. “Everything from electric toothbrushes and razors, laptop, phones, scooters, power tools. If it plugs in, it’s got lithium in it.”

Those batteries too can overheat, especially if they aren’t charged with the correct charger or if they are charged for too long.

Now those batteries are getting old and people are starting to throw them out. But they have to be packaged differently when they are damaged.

Birmingham firefighters saw that firsthand in March when there was an explosion on an 18-wheeler parked at the Flying J on Daniel Payne Drive .

The truck was taking a load of damaged L-ion batteries in 55-gallon drums from Alabama to Georgia and stopped for lunch at the Flying J.

For whatever reason, all of the barrels were not packaged correctly and the bouncing-up-and-down on the interstate would eventually lead to the large explsion.

“One out of millions (of cells) went into thermal runaway and filled up truck,’’ Hendon said.

“Bystanders said that trailer roof went about 30 feet in the air,’’ he said. “That’s why the gasses when trapped are so dangerous and have to be package differently.”

DOWNLOAD: Introductory guide to lithium-ion battery fire and explosion hazards

Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service shares this list of L-ion battery safety:

- Only use tested and approved devices.

- Only use manufacturer-provided charges, cables, and replacement batteries.

- Do not leave devices unattended while charging (away from home or overnight).

- Do not charge devices on pillows, beds, couches, or other combustible material.

- Keep batteries and devices at room temperature – away from direct sunlight or heat.

- Do not store/charge mobility devices (bikes, scooters, powered wheelchairs) near exits or windows that can block a quick getaway.

- If you notice a battery start to change shape, color or make popping or hissing sounds, remove the device from the structure if it’s safe to do so. If not, leave the structure and call 911.

- Do not dispose of rechargeable batteries in regular trash or recycling bins.

- Undamaged L-ion batteries under 11 pounds and 300 watts can be dropped off for no charge at recycling bins located at Home Depot , Lowes and Staples through a partnership they have established with Call2Recycle .

- For damaged L-ion batteries, contact Call2Recycle customer service at 1-877-723-1297.

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