By Michael O’Brian
Lithium-ion batteries are powering more devices than ever. From our personal electronics and mobility devices (e-bikes, scooters, wheelchairs) to energy storage systems (ESS), electric vehicles and manufacturing facilities, our firefighters are responding to myriad incident types that require a new approach. These calls challenge our crews, in part due to their long duration.
Consider an e-bike. While an e-bike has lots of advantages for our community in providing affordable transportation, when the battery pack powering the device is not properly constructed, over-charged or damaged, the effects of a cell in thermal runaway are devastating. Recent studies by UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute have proven the speed at which lithium-ion battery fires grow.
Firefighters must understand the effects of thermal runaway, namely cell-to-cell propagation and off-gassing. The smoke from these fires is filled with flammable gasses, which, depending on the location of the fire, can create rapid fire development and flashover in under 30 seconds. Then, as cells go through thermal runaway, the heat can propagate to additional cells, creating a series of pops and additional cell ignitions.
The fire service is rapidly refining our response techniques, not only in fire suppression but post-incident mitigation as well. Our actions can dictate if we will have a second event after the first. Such actions involve packing of batteries post-incident, working with our secondary responders on proper towing and storage, and working with vendors on proper transport.
As our neighborhoods continue to electrify, the fire service is poised to lead the necessary conversations in our communities. Collectively we are very good at educating our community on the various hazards that can occur in the home. Developing our understanding and providing education to our community about proper charging and storage and what to do when a battery pack is damaged are key parts of our expanding roles.
As we educate our citizens, we must also work to develop a strong community response across public safety. This includes working with our law enforcement partners on the hazards associated with electric vehicles involved in a crash and developing processes for proper towing and handling. Further, we can work with our community partners to develop collection points for suspect or possibly damaged batteries, and we must drive conversation with community leaders that tactics on ESS and EVs do sometimes involve letting the unit burn out.
[Read next: Electric vehicle fires: Where the waiting game wins]
The fire service is uniquely positioned to lead the transition to more electric devices in our homes, workplaces and community as a whole. We must train our firefighters and company officers with the latest information, build strong partnerships within our community for post-incident response, and work to educate everyone on these new hazards.
About the author
Michael O’Brian is the fire chief for the Brighton Area (Michigan) Fire Authority and serves on the board of directors for the International Association of Fire Chiefs representing the Fire and Life Safety Section. He chairs the IAFC Lithium-Ion Battery Committee and is an expert in fire and building codes.