Estimated 12 min reading time.
Welcome to “The USFA Podcast,” the official podcast of the U.S. Fire Administration. I’m your host, Teresa Neal. A simple Google search can give you info on lithium-ion batteries, like, they are small, lightweight and capable of storing a large amount of energy. But these characteristics also make them volatile under stress.
If they are damaged or incorrectly charged, they can be a fire risk. There are a few warning signs that a battery or cell may fail: if it’s bulging or swelling, discharging faster than usual, and if the battery is hot to the touch. Once a battery fails or runs away, it will give off smoke. Thermal runaway is a chemical process in the lithium-ion battery, and it quickly produces heat and flammable, toxic chemicals, usually before a flame.
We know these fires are a concern to the fire service. Any social posts, blog articles or news about training receive a lot of interest. Because of this, we’ve invited the Fire Department City of New York’s Chief of Department John Hodgens to discuss the risk and how New York City is trying to stop these fires.
As I mentioned, Chief Hodgens is chief of department appointed by the fire commissioner. He holds the highest-ranking uniform position in the FDNY. He is a 36-year veteran, joining the department in 1986, and cited for bravery twice in his career. He also comes from a fire service family. His father was a chief and served as the chief of prevention.
Well, thank you for joining us today, Chief. I wanted to ask you if you could give us some background on lithium-ion battery issues in New York City.
Sure. Well, it’s definitely something that’s a hot topic, and it’s emerging and growing day by day as far as the frequency of the fires we’re experiencing. The way it got developed and is continuing to develop into such a large, you know, problem set is during COVID there was a really big demand for delivery of food, pharmacy items — you know, restaurant takeout. And you know, a whole industry was formed here in the city of delivery drivers, riding basically e-bikes, mopeds and scooters, all which are powered by lithium-ion batteries. So, that was in 2020.
And it became something that’s extremely convenient, as you can imagine, where we all use Uber or, you know, what they call Seamless, which is food delivery. And you just go on your phone, and 20 minutes later somebody’s knocking on your door with whatever you ordered.
So, this has created a whole industry of e-bikes, meaning that we never really had storefronts that were devoted to selling e-bikes, swapping batteries, charging batteries, all of these things that really never existed. All of the delivery drivers, which they call deliveristas here — it’s an organization that they put together. They actually have a union.
You know, these bikes cost a lot of money and, so, you can’t blame them for taking them into their homes, you know, at night. So, that’s what we have. We just have an explosion of the amount of the bikes and the batteries that are here in New York City. And we’re finding out, you know, the hard way how dangerous these things can be in particular situations, especially.
And we’re experiencing, you know, quite a few fires. I have some statistics. To give you an example, in 2019, our fire marshals investigated 30 fires citywide that were potentially caused by a micromobility device or e-bike of some sort. In the last year, 2022, there were 220 investigations, so it’s really exploded.
So far this year, we already have 48 fires that are related to these devices. As far as the very serious consequences, in 2019 and 2020, we had zero deaths associated with these fires. But in 2021, we had 4 deaths. In 2022, we had 6. And in 2023, so far, we have 3. So, it’s just becoming, you know, a really serious situation.
And I — this is kind of maybe a little bit off topic, but when I was reading about lithium-ion batteries and when we’ve spoken before this, it was saying that the vapors that come from it are not only flammable, but they’re toxic. And so, I’m wondering about even health issues that happen after that type of a fire that people don’t, you know, they don’t die in it or they’re not physically burned in it, but what happens, you know, when they are exposed to all of that smoke?
Yeah, so it’s a very toxic smoke. It’s based — it’s chemical based. The batteries are built with, you know, different chemical components, and it’s a new emerging situation that we are getting ahead of in the FDNY with our cleaning of our gear more often, making sure everybody complies with the SCBA policy and just preaching that this is a potential toxic, extremely toxic, even more so than other fires, that we have to be extremely more vigilant with the wearing of our equipment and making sure we’re not breathing the fumes from these fires.
So, why are these fires so serious in particular, and how are they different than other fires?
So, you know, you can see there’s many instances of these fires where a normal fire in a residential setting would start. Usually, I mean, the biggest cause is some type of electrical malfunction. And something will start out small and slowly build up to take over the whole room.
But as that’s happening, you know, if we have smoke detectors, they went off and the occupants were warned. But with these lithium-ion battery fires, if you can look up and see some videos of how this happens, you’ll see like a white smoke coming from the device and within seconds it explodes.
Sometimes literally. Like an explosion that has knocked down walls and taken out windows, or it becomes, within seconds, a blowtorch fire. So, that’s the difference with intense heat. And this is just something that is completely untenable within a residential setting within seconds.
And that’s the difference between a regular fire and these fires.
And so, you say you’re seeing them more often, and you’re probably seeing them more often because people are using the bikes and they’re bringing them in, of course, ’cause they’re expensive, but you also said that there are some other issues about those bikes that are causing concern for New York City.
Yes, because, you know, the bikes are used for many, many hours during the day, and sometimes the users need more than 1 battery, you know, to operate for the day. So, you know, where they buy these batteries is a concern. See, what we’re really trying to get the message across through fire safety education is to only use batteries that are certified by a testing laboratory, such as Underwriters Laboratory.
They have a little sticker on them and that, right there, you’re taking a big step towards safety. But you know, a lot of these batteries now are available online. They’re cheaper, and they’re not certified. And that is one of our biggest concerns. And people that use these devices, they — like I said, they have multiple batteries, and sometimes the battery will break in some form or fashion.
There are little repair shops that are forming around the city. Some people will, you know, take them apart, put them back together with new cells. And this is also a compromise of the structure of the battery and is also leading to more fires. The other big concern is because they’re swapping out different batteries from different manufacturers, sometimes they’re not using the same — or the designed — charger for that battery. Although it may work, it could be giving off a different voltage, and it’s also a very big concern with what’s causing fires.
Yeah, just like with our phones that tell you to only use the charger that you’re supposed to use, that comes with the phone, because if not, it can be compromised somehow and it can cause your phone to start sparking. I mean, while that could still cause a big fire, it’s not to the same degree that we’re talking about with these huge batteries that are on the bikes.
So, what are you trying to do to address the issue that you’re having with the new businesses and then the education that you may be giving to those people that are delivering and using the bikes?
So, here in the FDNY we’re going at this — attacking this on many different fronts. And one of them is education. So, we have a whole unit that is called the Fire Safety Education Unit, and they’re going around to communities, schools, many different types of establishments, community events and promoting fire safety for using these batteries properly, what type of batteries you should be using, if you take them into your house — which is not illegal — the proper way to charge it, to make sure that you don’t charge it while you’re sleeping, never store it near any of your exits. It’s very important ’cause of how fast the fire builds up and to just use the equipment that’s designed for the bike that you bought.
And these are all, you know, just fire safety information that we’re getting out widespread. We’re also, on the enforcement front, we have a task force which is made up of the FDNY Fire Protection Inspectors accompanied with our Bureau of Fire Investigation. And we’re going around identifying some of these stores that sell the bikes. They have the battery setups where they’re charging numerous batteries, sometimes way too many. And we’re just giving out violations, but we’re also, with those violations, educating. So, we’re going to give this violation, and what we do is we come back and we check on it, but in the meantime, this is what you’re doing wrong and this is what you need to do in order to stay in business.
Because like I said, it has become quite the industry here, and there are many people depending on this for their livelihood.
And maybe they just don’t even understand, some of these shop owners, that, you know, if 1 battery was compromised and it caught on fire — and I think you said that you’ve gone into some places and they have 200 batteries charging at the same time — if they all started to catch fire or just 1 and then caused other ones to, I mean, they would lose their business. So, it’s more than just saying, you can’t do this ’cause you’re not licensed or it’s not right, but you could lose everything. Your life, but you could also lose your livelihood.
Exactly, yeah, it’s very dangerous. The most egregious place we came across was charging up to 200 batteries, had a hundred bikes stored inside, it was the first floor of a 6-story residential building, and they were also sleeping within that space, in the back. We had rooms set up with, you know, sleeping accommodations.
So, extremely dangerous. Completely unaware probably of just how dangerous this is. So, we do educate while we’re out doing this surveillance of these shops.
Yeah. So, you shared some of the message that you are providing. Is there anything else that you’d like to share about the lithium-ion batteries or what you’re doing in New York City to kind of get ahead of it? Because we know that this is very popular right now. Every time we have training, we hear about training and post about it, we just get so many shares and people sending it out to other people. While you are seeing it, I mean, you guys are the forerunners, and we kind of look to these big metros to tell us how do we react and teach smaller communities about what to do to work with lithium-ion or any other type of fire risk.
So, it’s very important that we’re also going at this at a legislative level, and our fire commissioner has been very vocal about how dangerous these devices are. And we’ve reached out to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, which is a federal entity, and they’re going to be forming regulations, one of which is preventing the sale, use or lease of any device that is not certified or that would be like purchasing — you won’t be able to purchase something because it will not be available potentially. And also going into the ports to get the imported shipments and just make sure that all that is meeting the safety standards. So, that’s something on the federal level, and then we have what’s here is the city council just passed 5 new bills that address some of the concerns, and it’s similar in that the sale, use or lease of any devices that are not certified by UL or another testing laboratory. So, we’re trying to educate through some type of enforcement and also improve the manufacturing end of it. So, those are the ways that we’re going at this. It’s going to take some time, but I think we’re not standing still. We’re always trying to think of ways to address this — understanding just how dangerous it is, as I have told you, with the amount of fires and, you know, the loss of life.
And what about environmentally, though? I mean, that’s another thing too: I know that we kind of move to electric because we want a better environment, but there’s — there’s a whole host of things that are coming from this as well. Because you said — we said the gases, but I know that you also told me that putting out one of these fires is not the same as putting out a regular fire that you usually put out.
Right. So, when we have a fire that involves these batteries, you’re absolutely right. It turns into a hazardous materials incident. Because we can’t just take these batteries and throw them in the garbage. First of all, once they are extinguished, we have had cases where they have reignited up to 48 hours later. So, they have to be overpacked by our hazardous materials units, you know, safe containment and removed to hazardous material storage sites by the department of sanitation here in the state. So, it’s a whole process. Our hazardous materials units right now are out there quite a bit and confiscating these batteries that are safe now.
I understand like it takes more water and all and then you have to put it into another special type of container. But how long before you can dispose of it, and how do you dispose of it after that if there’s that chance of it reigniting?
Yeah, it’s stored in what’s almost like a — almost like a sand mixture which will prevent it from reigniting, and that’s also inside of an enclosed box. So, yeah, they are taken to facilities outdoors, and I don’t know the end of life, but I know that once they’re stored in this manner, it becomes safe.
I mean, there just seems to be so many different ways that it’s dangerous, and not that electric vehicles or any of those things aren’t good things, but sometimes I think we rush to market on things and, you know, every time you come up with a great idea, you kind of sit back and go, so what are those unintended consequences that happen from this great idea?
If I fire 5 people now, what are the unintended consequences? You know, those type of things. And so, I almost think that’s what we kind of did here was rush to market without letting people understand that there is an issue. People don’t even believe that their phones will cause a little fire, so much less their bicycle.
Right, but I think a good example of the industry improvements that can happen is that, you know, not too long ago we were seeing fires from laptops and cellphones, but that manufacturing process was improved and you don’t really hear about it all that much. So, that is the end goal here. Also, you know they’re looking into safe places throughout the city where you can charge your bike or where you can store your bike. So, that’s also part of the legislative end of this. And also, what we would call a hub for all of the deliveristas, the delivery drivers, where they can, during their day, go charge their bikes and exchange their battery in a safe manner. Instead of doing it where they’re doing their own repairs, they are using uncertified batteries. These are all things that can potentially lead to fires. So, it’s a lot of education and coupled with regulation and some other legislative things we can do, and we are doing just, you know, looking to turn this around, although I don’t think it will happen overnight.
Well, thank you so much for coming on and telling us about this. Like I said, I know it’s very important and I know most fire departments like to know what FDNY is doing about an issue, so I appreciate that you took your time and came on the podcast.
Oh. My pleasure. I really love to help everybody out. We want other cities to get on top of this as well. I think we are experiencing the highest level of this type of fires, but I think that not everybody is tracking it as well, either. That’s the first step, to track and investigate these fires and document and just see exactly how much of it is going on in the city. And, you know, really it is something that you really need to get on top of because, like I told you, in 2019 we had 30 fire investigations and just last year we had 220. And we’re on pace now to surpass that as well.
Yeah, with all the other fires on top of it, it’s just another, you know — the other fires haven’t come down either, so.
Well, they’re all still there, too, so we’ve been pretty busy here. You hear about it just about every day. And the sad thing is people being killed and hurt.
Or displaced and they’re not able to come back either to where they used to live or work.
We had a pretty amazing video of a 5-alarm fire that I responded to a couple of weekends ago in the Bronx, where, you know, we didn’t know how it started but the entire supermarket, probably 100 feet by 200 feet, was involved in fire. Sure enough, they were able to recover a recording of the stockroom. Later on, we saw an e-bike smoldering, smoking and then it burst into flames. Now you have complete destruction of this supermarket and there was a laundry mat next door. From 1 bike. So, that’s just something that really hits home as to how dangerous this can be if not treated responsibly.
Well, thank you again for coming on, and I’ll check in probably in 6 months to see how it’s going and what you all have learned and about any legislation changes, and maybe that’s another way it can help others is by seeing how you’ve legislated it so they can also do the same thing. All right. Thank you so much.
Thank you for listening to “The USFA Podcast,” and thank you to Chief Hodgens for joining us today. If you want to learn more about FDNY and its programs, please go to nyc.gov/fdny. If you have a topic or a speaker you would like us to interview, please email the show at firstname.lastname@example.org.