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Blind date dangers and lithium-ion battery blazes

Much like the individuals going into a blind date, firefighters should gather as much information as possible about Li-ion battery fires prior to response

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Back in my single days, I rarely went on a date I didn’t enjoy, and a few dates were blind dates. Upon the first meeting, we both performed a quick size-up, and I am happy to report that neither myself nor the other individual ever ran far and fast.

When it’s the first time you meet a potential date, you would do well to get as much information as possible beforehand. Back then, all we had was someone else’s opinion – usually the person who set you up: “My sister is amazing or “My daughter is breathtaking.” Very limited info. Of course today just a few minutes on the internet can supply much more information. Either way, we are all much better off getting as much information prior to engaging with the individual.

The new fire danger on the block

Fire emergencies are similar. We can arrive with zero prior knowledge and zero applicable training and just “wing it” – or we can be prepared, individually and organizationally. When we wing it, there is a chance that we will do just fine. You have been at those fires. I certainly have. Normalization of deviance. However, if we arrive with loads of applicable training and related information, we greatly reduce the predictable outcome versus situations where we wing it. When we are as prepared as possible, we have fewer surprises.

In just the past few years, a “new” kind of fire has emerged – the kind of fire where the fire service had zero prior information but was presented with a “blind date” scenario. I am talking about fires involving lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries and the devices they power.

Just a few years ago, we were clueless to Li-ion batteries or what it meant for us, that is, until we attended our first 5-hour car fire. After a few of those, we started to pay attention.

In just 2023, the FDNY has responded to over 200 working fires involving Li-ion batteries, and cities and jurisdictions outside of NYC are responding to these fires as well. Furthermore, in New York City, 17 PEOPLE have been killed by Li-ion-related fires this year, with over 120 injuries.

What is happening here? The problem involves several factors:

  • Poor/cheap manufacturing
  • Dangerous refurbishing
  • Fake UL labels
  • Improper use
  • Improper storage

Be it in NYC or in your community, the problem is managed through a multi-pronged approach. Fortunately, UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute, the FDNY, IAFC, IAFF and many other fire service organizations are working hard to get this fire problem under control through legal action, code changes, and local fire safety inspections and enforcement measures.

Fire department preparedness

So, what should we do at our local fire departments to prepare for this type of fire? Read, take classes, and train! The same thing we do or should be doing every day, every shift, every training opportunity.

UL’s FSRI offers training right now so when you pull up and have a fire potentially involving Li-ion batteries (and every fire does these days until we determine that it doesn’t), you know what to do – and what not to do. By training, we can learn what tools and equipment we have available now to deal with these fires, and what new tools may be worth considering in fighting these kinds of fires in the future.

Your responsibility to educate

All firefighters love responding to fires. It’s in our DNA. Wait, correction: We don’t want anyone to have a fire, but if there is one, we want to respond and handle it. That’s better. So, if we don’t want people to suffer like so many have from this “new” kind of fires, then we have a responsibility to educate those we protect.

There are numerous resources that you can use to educate your community in person, through social media, through print and televised/radio media to help the public understand the seriousness of Li-ion battery fires:

Here are some resources that you can make your own:

It’s time to get serious

Like when a relationship grows (following that first date), things can get complicated. For example, related to Li-ion fires, the thermal runaway phenomenon makes these fires extremely hard to put out. When you and your members check out UL’s FSRI training, you will learn that water-based fire extinguishers may cool down the battery to help prevent the spread of the fire but won’t extinguish the fire on the battery until its energy is dissipated. You need to learn how that works. And as many firefighters have already found out, even when a Li-ion battery fire appears to have been brought under control, it can reignite hours – or sometimes even days – later. These batteries can also release highly toxic gases when they fail, and excessive heat can cause them to explode.

These fires are nothing to screw around with. Lithium-ion battery fires have killed and injured hundreds of people, and they continue to be a serious hazard. For those responding to these fires, our risks increase when we are untrained. However, if we apply a little effort and leadership (company officer and chief levels) to educate our communities and our members, we can decrease the potential of these batteries to become deadly fires.

Back to that bad blind date perhaps that good blind date that became a longer relationship: Ever wish you did a better size-up? Ever wish you were better prepared for a predictable problem that popped up? Well, there ya go.

Chief Billy Goldfeder, EFO, a firefighter since 1973, serves as deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department. He also serves as Lexipol’s senior fire advisor and is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Goldfeder is a member of the Board of Directors for several organizations: the IAFC, the September 11th Families Association and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). He also provides expert review assistance to the CDC NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. Goldfeder is the recipient of numerous operational and administrative awards, appointments and recognitions. He has served on several NFPA and IAFC committees, has authored numerous articles and books, and presented several sessions at industry events. Chief Goldfeder co-hosts the website www.FireFighterCloseCalls.com.
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