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Fire service leaders testify before Congress about Li-ion battery hazards

The U.S. fire administrator, FDNY chief fire marshal, IAFC president and FSRI executive director detailed lithium-ion battery dangers facing firefighters and the general public

The U.S. fire administrator, FDNY chief fire marshal, IAFC president and FSRI executive director provided testimony on Thursday to members of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Management and Technology on the dangers posed by lithium-ion batteries.

The hearing – “Examining Fire Hazards: Lithium-Ion Batteries and Other Threats to Fire Safety” – was led by Subcommittee Chairman Anthony D’Esposito (D-N.Y.), who stated that in 2023, the FDNY responded to 268 such battery fires, which caused 150 injuries and 18 deaths.

Watch the hearing:

U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell reminded the subcommittee that these batteries are now found in common, everyday devices – items such as cell phones, computers, e-bikes, e-scooters and, of course, electric vehicles.

“Fire risk from these devices occurs when an ordinarily stable electromechanical system is destabilized and the batteries become damaged, used, stored or charged incorrectly,” Moore-Merrell explained, adding this alarming statistic: “In fires where these devices are involved, there is often only 15 seconds from the first sign of smoke to thermal runaway and explosion, with windows blown out and fire burning in homes, apartments and businesses.”

Underscoring the fast-moving nature of these fires, FDNY Chief Fire Marshal Daniel Flynn added that many of the deadliest fires in New York City have been caused by e-devices being kept in residential homes and apartments.

IAFC President John Butler highlighted the unpredictable nature of these fires given their rapid and intense heat release in volatility. Stressing situational awareness, Butler said incident commanders should consider a new tactical decision-making paradigm when they learn such batteries are present. He cited not just products but the batteries’ shipment and charging components as hazards.

Further, Butler said, officers should encourage simulation-based scenarios in regular training and investment in developing tailored firefighting tactics. Calling the National Fire Incident Reporting System “antiquated,” he said it must be replaced by the National Emergency Response Information System: “As the nation deals with an increase in lithium-ion battery fires, we need to be able to track and better understand their occurrences.”

In a call for enhanced training and protective measures, Stephen Kerber, executive director of UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute (FSRI), told subcommittee members that first responders face predictable exposure to toxic gases but also the risk of battery explosions. Kerber supports uniform safety standards for making and transporting these batteries in addition to investment in more research and development of safer battery technologies alongside innovative firefighting techniques and equipment.

Moore-Merrell suggested public education and outreach efforts to raise awareness about the fire risks associated with the batteries and promote safe handling and disposal. Given the prevalence of these batteries, Butler said that kind of campaign is timely.

With regard to EV fires, Moore-Merrell noted, “We still don’t know what we don’t know, and [EVs require] a lot of water, a lot of resources for a protracted amount of time.” She stated that incidents are currently being tracked either as hazardous materials or electrical fires while a new cloud-based system that can handle videos and photos directly from scenes nears rollout this year.

Flynn added: “Electrification technology is exciting, and there is no shortage of innovators striving to find better solutions. However, it is essential that we implement new technology in concert with an appropriate focus on public safety.”

Related legislation pending this session:

Michael Kirby has worked since 2008 for a credentialed news bureau on Capitol Hill that provides digital video and information services to news organizations across the web. Kirby graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2007 with a BA in philosophy, minoring in history. He is interested in many legislative topics, and always has an eye on public safety-related news because he grew up around the firehouse.