On Nov. 15, 2023, U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell joined FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh, UL’s Fire Service Research Institute Vice President Stever Kerber, Consumer Product Safety Commission Director of Compliance and Field Operations Robert Kaye, and ATF Engineer Michael Abraham at an event to inform the public about the growing threats associated with lithium-ion batteries, and to share key strategies that the fire service must embrace to mitigate the dangers. FDNY Chief Fire Marshal Daniel Flynn and Lieutenant John Cassidy also provided input during the presentation.
Commissioner Kavanagh and Dr. Moore-Merrell underscored that the dangers posed by Li-ion batteries is a nationwide problem. Cities and towns across America are reporting problems with battery systems, and the race is on to get ahead of the public safety issues posed by these products. Kavanagh reflected that it has been a long time since a product came out that suddenly became the leading cause of fire deaths in New York City, adding, “We want to see a future where electrification is safe. We can’t do that if we don’t get ahead of it.”
Commissioner Kavanagh gave an update on citywide legislative efforts that have provided new tools for fire investigators and police officers, and Dr. Moore-Merrill and Director Kaye spoke to federal efforts on both legislative and mandatory standards efforts. Recognizing the time those efforts take, there is clearly no quick fix to this issue.
Focus at the highest levels
Dr. Moore-Merrell reinforced that the need for the fire service to lead and inform this discussion is one of seven critical issues that were identified just last month at the USFA summit on Fire Prevention and Control. She added that, “the fire service has a central and critical role in ensuring that the decisions, particularly policy and regulatory decisions, take into consideration fire safety risk.”
So far this year, 18 people have been killed by fires caused by lithium-ion batteries. These fires are dangerous and fast-moving. Just last month, the @FSRI_org produced a powerful video demonstrating why it is so difficult to escape from a fire started by a lithium-ion battery. pic.twitter.com/3tgQXULLcy— FDNY (@FDNY) December 4, 2023
ATF stats make the case
Abraham made an interesting observation, in that Li-ion batteries and e-devices are now present and/or involved at every fire scene the ATF investigates. That was magnified by FDNY statistics stating that the number of e-device fires had doubled from 2021 to 2022 and was on pace to be 50% higher yet in 2023.
Kavanagh indicated that the FDNY is now responding to at least one e-system fire every day somewhere in New York City.
Leaders from ATF NY & @ATF_NCETR participated with our partners at a safety awareness campaign kick off hosted by @FDNY, @usfire & @FSRI_org. FSRI’s initiative is to inform the public about the potential dangers of lithium-ion battery-powered devices.— ATF New York (@ATFNewYork) November 15, 2023
👉🏼 https://t.co/SXJENjG3aT pic.twitter.com/SQpsm2Jnoh
The CPSC product perspective
Kaye, speaking on behalf of CPSC staff but not making an official commission position statement, recognized the “great utility to consumers” that e-products provide. He cautioned, however, that the convenience comes with a deadly hazard. Kaye spoke to how the CPSC has reached out to “thousands of these manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers, and made it clear that the CPSC expects these devices to be in compliance with the applicable voluntary UL standards.” He spoke to the complexities of jurisdiction to intercept devices coming from outside of the United States, and how new powers would need to be granted by Congress to be able to seize devices at port destinations. Kaye added: “It is critical that consumers understand what to look for when they’re buying these products [such as UL certification], and that they know how to use, store and charge them as safely as possible.”
Kaye indicated that the CPSC had begun the discussion about mandatory standards, but that too is a long process. The CPSC has been in contact with all the e-platform operators and commercial operations to ensure that devices they carry are UL-certified. Further, the CPSC has informed the same groups that unsafe devices would be removed from the marketplace. Kaye stated that the CPSC will continue to investigate these fires as they occur, and indicated that the CPSC has issued recalls on two dozen such devices.
Kaye concluded with some direction for the public. Specifically, if they have a product that presents any signs of thermal stress, overheating, smoking, etc., “they should report it to www.saferproducts.gov to let us know you’ve observed those things with your product,” this being after they remove themselves from any danger and/or call 911.
FSRI guides the public
Kerber echoed remarks about the dangers posed by these products: “Escape times are down to a minute or less, which is completely unreasonable. We appreciate the fact that this technology is important for the electrification to power our everyday lives; however, we have got to play catch up [responding to and trying to prevent the emergencies], and the public needs to appreciate the risk.” He then showed a powerful 8-minute public service announcement developed by FSRI that all fire departments should share with their communities.
Here are my key takeaways from the PSA: Even though we know that Li-ion batteries are pervasive throughout our homes, an astonishing 44% of people admitted to not knowing what a lithium battery was. For the fire service, there are two specific problems that we need to address – now:
- Our ability to limit and combat thermal runaway, which is a pervasive issue in sealed Li-ion battery compartments. Penetrating the battery compartment and being able to deliver a sufficient cooling agent to reduce thermal runaway is the only immediate way to ensure that these fires are out. Unfortunately, most fire departments are not equipped nor trained to effectively penetrate the compartments and deliver sufficient cooling agent. This remains a work in progress. [Read next: Electric vehicle fires: Where the waiting game wins]
- Increased public education of the life safety and property hazard issues, specifically from uncertified after-market and/or damaged battery systems for smaller devices, like e-bikes, hover-boards, etc. Beyond continuing to reinforce our smoke alarm and sprinkler mantras, there are multiple keys to improving public education here:
- Only purchase certified devices, listed with a credentialed testing laboratory;
- Do not use damaged equipment or storage systems;
- Listen/look for signs of thermal runaway in these smaller devices – unusual smells, puffing batteries, hissing sounds, smoke or other anomalies;
- Store these devices and their charging systems outside of life-hazard areas and in locations that do not impede primary or secondary exit paths;
- Follow guidelines for proper recycling of smaller devices – do NOT simply throw them away. If you cannot identify local collection points for Li-ion battery recycling, it’s best to contact your local waste management company for assistance; and
- Do NOT try to put the fire out yourself – get out and call 911 immediately.
We must own this issue
Two things were abundantly clear from this event: First, there is a tremendous need for public education and awareness on this topic. The fire service MUST take a leadership role in this community risk reduction (CRR) effort, even as we continue to drive home the traditional messaging that has positively impacted public safety over the past 30 years. Second, the fire service MUST catch up to this problem before it overtakes our communities. We must not simply take a wait-and-see approach, or a “not my job” approach as our communities burn and our neighbors die. These fires will likely affect someone in your family, sooner or later.
Chief Fire Marshal Flynn’s takeaways at the end of the presentation really drives home the gravity of the life safety problem in New York City, which can be extrapolated to communities across the country: “In 2020, we had ZERO deaths attributed to these fires. So far in 2023, we have had 17 deaths attributed to battery and mobility products.”
The problem is everywhere – this IS OUR fight!