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The fire service must lead the discussion on lithium-ion battery dangers

The fire service’s trusted voice and unique insight can engage all stakeholders in understanding the associated risks

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Technology innovation with electric vehicles (EVs) and energy transition offers both exciting opportunities for advancing culture, but also brings unanticipated consequences of fire risks that are currently unregulated and unchecked. Similarly, innovation like lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery micro-mobility products are needed to move us away from dependence on fossil fuels and have proven beneficial in daily use, but these products come with risks.

Li-ion battery-powered micro-mobility products like scooters and electric bikes, as well as EVs and large energy storage facilities, are all making life easier, fun and green. However, innovation can sometimes lead to unintended consequences, like a fire threat, when not used as directed or intended. Explosive ignitions and long-burning thermal runaway is the reality, and the greater the charge at the time of ignition, the greater the impact. There is more work to be done when it comes to threat realization, policy and regulation, response resources, public awareness and prevention education, research, and firefighter training.

The need for the fire service to lead and inform the discussion on the fire safety of lithium-ion batteries and other alternative energy sources within our communities is 1 of 7 critical issues identified for action on the part of the federal government during the 2023 Fire Administrator’s Summit on Fire Prevention and Control.

Li-ion batteries and emerging alternatives constitute a significant component of the drive to reduce emissions worldwide. They are part of a complex global ecosystem of multinational agreements and organizations, geopolitical security questions, and finite natural resources. While a daunting task, the fire service has a central and critical role in ensuring that policy decisions address fire safety risks.

While Li-ion batteries are an attractive option to power our many modern needs, fire risk increases when they are damaged or used, stored or charged incorrectly. Combined with what we know of their complex fire risk, their ubiquitous presence requires the fire service to turn lessons learned on incident, planned research, and available data into operational considerations quickly.

While Li-ion batteries are engineered to be safe, the nature of these devices is that they may continue to hold a charge after being damaged, even if fully submerged in water. Following the Lahaina wildfire on the island of Maui, firefighters and environmental protection specialists were challenged with numerous Li-ion powered products that had to be de-energized, crushed and prepared for transport off the island prior to beginning large-scale debris removal. This scenario called for innovation and forward-thinking to create a protocol that would work and provide information for future incidents.

Ongoing research is needed to understand the new and complex hazards Li-ion batteries can present, and to provide firefighters with data and information to inform operational procedures. Today, firefighters must consider the presence of Li-ion batteries in all operations, including the risk of faster flashover rates, increased temperatures during fire suppression, and the possibility of explosion.

The fire service must lead the discussion of safety surrounding Li-ion batteries and other alternative energy sources. While our communities are generally aware of risks associated with their ordinarily benign devices, it is important for the fire service to adopt fire safety messaging regarding Li-ion batteries and alternative energy sources to share with the public about their unique risks. Messaging on these devices should include their safe usage, storage and charging, like the messages in the Take C.H.A.R.G.E. toolbox.

As Li-ion battery-powered products grow increasingly prevalent, the fire service’s trusted voice and unique insight can engage all stakeholders in understanding the associated risks and work to ensure that policy decisions consider the safety of our people and communities.

USFA Priorities

Lead and inform the discussion on the fire safety of Li-ion batteries and other alternative energy sources within our communities, at all levels of government, and with industry partners.

  • Priority 1: Determine risk to the public and firefighter health from li-ion battery incidents.
  • Priority 2: Conduct a consumer education campaign like “Take C.H.A.R.G.E.” Firefighters must learn and directly engage in their communities to educate individuals about personal risks.
  • Priority 3: Conduct necessary research to inform fire service response organizations.

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell is the U.S. fire administrator, appointed in 2021. She founded the International Public Safety Data Institute and was the recipient of the 2020 Mason Lankford Fire Service Leadership Award.