An exploding problem: Fires sparked by lithium batteries are confounding firefighters
With the number of fires caused by lithium batteries soaring across the U.S., firefighters and other experts say the training needed to fight them effectively is lagging in many places.
Last July, an electric transit bus in Connecticut burst into flames while parked at a depot. A month later, an electric scooter sparked a fire inside aNew York City apartment that killed a 5-year-old girl and 36-year-old woman. And last month, a fire believed to be caused by the batteries in an electric scooter engulfed a multifamily home in Brockton, Massachusetts.
Lithium-ion batteries have become a ubiquitous feature in new forms of transportation and common household products. They're also found in residential solar energy systems.
But when those batteries fail or overheat, they release flammable, toxic gasses that can spark a fast-spreading fire that is extremely difficult to extinguish.
“The source of the gasses that are creating the flames is confined within a cell battery that will not allow water in,” said Ofodike Ezekoye, a fire scientist and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “When firefighters are responding to these types of incidents, it takes a lot longer to be able to control the fire because it requires so much more water.”
With the number of fires caused by lithium batteries soaring across the U.S., firefighters and other experts say the training needed to fight them effectively is lagging in many places. Firefighters and city officials are also imploring the manufacturers to redesign the batteries so that, when they fail, the resulting fires can be put down more easily.
“What we’re seeing is these new technologies, as important as they are, they make it out into the field before we know all the possible consequences that could come from them,” said Steve Kerber, the executive director of the nonprofit UL Fire Safety Research Institute. “It isn’t until failures start to happen that the fire service understands what the consequences are. That’s where we need to start playing catch-up.”
Kerber said his team has run tests on lithium-ion batteries in which it took only 15 seconds from the first sign of smoke to the windows being blown out in a house. In a traditional fire, it typically takes about three minutes for a room to be engulfed, he said.
“With such explosion hazards, it’s incredibly important that we get firefighters to understand how to operate safely,” Kerber said.
Hunter Clare and Justin Lopez, who work for the fire department in Peoria, Arizona, have firsthand experience of the hazards.
In April 2019, the two fire captains responded to a call at a facility that was housing thousands of lithium-ion batteries used to store energy for a power grid. The batteries are critical components in such facilities that store solar energy.
Clare and Lopez arrived along with other first responders to find a white cloud of vapor seeping out of the building and drifting across the desert.
“It was staying about 3 to 4 feet off the ground, and it was kind of swaying like sea water,” Clare said.
The firefighters suspected that it was some kind of chemical cocktail. They secured the area and used special devices to test the air, which showed dangerous levels of hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide.
Then they waited until the vapors stopped flowing out of the building and the levels of flammable gas dropped. Nearly two hours passed before the firefighters made their way to the front door of the facility. When they opened it, a large cloud escaped the building. Before they could retreat to safety, the space ignited, setting off a powerful explosion.
Lopez landed 30 feet away, according to a report by the Fire Safety Research Institute. Clare was thrown about 70 feet, his body in flames.
“Don’t remember the explosion. Don’t remember anything from there,” Clare said.
Both men suffered severe injuries, including brain trauma.
Lopez had a collapsed lung, broken ribs, a broken leg, separated shoulder, laceration of the liver and multiple thermal and chemical burns, according to the report.
Clare suffered an eye injury, spine damage, broken ribs, broken ankles, a broken scapula, internal bleeding and thermal and chemical burns.
But they know they’re lucky to be alive.
“It could have been worse,” Lopez said.
“If you got there, and you were in the middle of nowhere and didn’t have the training that you needed, you might rush in,” Clare said.
The rise of electric scooters in cities has led to a massive spike in battery fires.
Lithium-ion batteries sparked more than 200 fires in New York City last year alone, killing six people and injuring nearly 150. That’s double the amount of battery fires in 2021, according to the New York City Fire Department.
So far this year, electric bike batteries have been identified as the cause of three fires in New York.
The most recent blaze broke out inside a building in the Inwood section of Manhattan on Feb. 5. Three people were hospitalized in critical condition, officials said. Last week, an e-bike battery sparked a fire at a day care center in Queens that injured nearly 20 children.
Keith Badler, senior technical trainer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said he’s particularly concerned about the threat of a battery fire in a bridge or a tunnel. He noted that it often takes a massive amount of water to extinguish the chemical-fueled blazes.
“We don’t have the luxury of just letting it burn out in the open, or in a tunnel or even in a bridge,” Badler said.
An industry trade group, PRBA — the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association — said it is “collaborating with emergency response governmental agencies and industry organizations to increase awareness about the risks posed by lithium ion batteries during handling, storage, and in transportation.”
“We welcome the opportunity to work with all interested parties on lithium ion battery outreach and education to prevent lithium ion battery incidents, increase consumer safety, and develop a consistent message on the correct lithium ion battery emergency response and safety procedures,” the group added.
Some fire departments in Arizona and elsewhere have added a new tool to fight these kinds of fires: a chemical additive specially designed to absorb heat and put down certain kinds of blazes.
The product, known as F-500 Encapsulator Agent, has shown in early tests to be effective at putting out the stubborn fires created by lithium-ion batteries.
“We’re absorbing the heat as opposed to trying to dissipate the heat through steam,” said Ron Lowrey, a former fire chief in Pennsylvania who now works for one company that produces the product, Hazard Control Technologies. “It’s a much better medium for cooling.”
By Vicky Nguyen, David Paredes and Andrew Blankstein