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Lithium-ion battery fires: The missing data

Without data, the extent of the problem is unknown

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“Until we can accurately track lithium-ion battery fires, we will be unable to understand the true gravity of the situation,” writes Durham.

Photo/FDNY

Electric vehicle (EV) fires are challenging firefighters, with incidents that last four, six, even eight hours and use tens of thousands of gallons of water to extinguish.

But how often do these events occur? And is the lithium-ion battery always the cause of these fires? Lastly, how often are lithium-ion batteries causing fires in other areas not related to EVs?

Li-ion batteries and EV fires

If an EV is on fire and the high-voltage battery is not involved, it is a standard vehicle fire that should extinguish with a few hundred gallons of water. However, if the high-voltage (lithium-ion) battery is on fire, things become much more complicated.

A common refrain from the EV industry: “Electric vehicles catch fire far less often than combustion engine vehicles.” Unfortunately, there is little data to support that claim because the fire service is not collecting that data.

Think about all the vehicle fires you have responded to over your career. How many of those vehicles are brand new, right off the lot? How many are 5 years old? Typically, fires in internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles occur in older (15-plus-year-old) vehicles that are poorly maintained. While EVs have been around for several years, their popularity and prevalence have only recently increased. Hence, most EVs on the road are under 5 years old – an age in which we simply don’t often see vehicle fires, at least in ICE vehicles. The fires seen in these newer EVs give the appearance of a big issue that could plague the fire service for years into the future.

Another issue with vehicle fire data is the classification of vehicles. EVs on their own are not a hazard for firefighters; the hazard is the large lithium-ion battery. There are Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV), Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV) and Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV), all of which can have a lithium-ion battery. Oftentimes, vehicle fire data only shows fires related to Battery Electric Vehicles. In order to understand the true scope of the issue, the data needs to combine all vehicles containing lithium-ion batteries in one category.

E-mobility and consumer electronics

EV are only part of the data-collection issue. More and more communities are having issues with lithium-ion batteries in e-mobility devices and other consumer electronics causing fires.

Batteries that are abused, cheap replacements, or improperly charged are failing across the country causing major fires. These issues are common across the country, but aside from local news outlets, rarely tracked.

The following list just scratches the surface on recent incidents involving lithium-ion batteries:

Plus: In, 2022, New York City experienced 220 lithium-ion related fires that ultimately killed six and injured 147 people.

More recently, FDNY shared that it had responded to 59 fires caused by lithium-ion batteries already this year. That 59th fire resulted in the death of two people.

https://www.facebook.com/FDNY/posts/pfbid0cXVQziMjFwpqJkPucCcf8uNPkBALdkkikSTEvhb5Gf8eTjZBbBn7gaXk5a4mn4oWl

The data is scattered across the internet and only available if local news decides to cover the incident. Due to the overwhelming number of incidents NFPA’s 2023 Safety Stand Down is “Lithium-Ion Batteries: Are You Ready?”

Wanted: More data

Fires involving lithium-ion batteries appear to be a significant issue throughout the country. Unfortunately, the fire service doesn’t know the true scope of the problem. Currently there is no method of gathering data on these types of fires.

The National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) does not list lithium-ion batteries as an option for ignition source. Another source for vehicle fire data may be insurance companies, but they might not have all the data regarding e-mobility and consumer electronics.

On a smaller scale, the fire department leadership can push for a “Special Study Code” in their respective state or county within NFIRS. This will allow the data to be captured to determine the scope of the issue, if any, at the local level.

Bottom line: Until we can accurately track lithium-ion battery fires, we will be unable to understand the true gravity of the situation. The fire service needs to push our leaders to make changes to NFIRS in order to capture the full picture of the problem. There will be no solutions until the scope of the situation is understood on a national level.

Patrick Durham serves as the captain and training officer at Station 4 within the Troy (Michigan) Fire Department. Durham is a mechanical engineer, presently engaged in cutting-edge automotive industry projects. Notably, he has been involved in designing innovative multi-material battery structures for electric vehicles. Drawing from over 15 years of combined experience as a firefighter and engineer, Durham has developed specialized training courses for firefighters, as well as YouTube content, focusing on various technical aspects, including the specific challenges associated with responding to incidents involving EVs. Durham is also a member of the Technical Panel for Fire Safety of Batteries and Electric Vehicles at UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute, where he contributes his expertise to advance the field of fire safety in the context of emerging battery technologies and electric vehicles. Learn more at StacheD Training or reach Durham via e-mail.
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