Redefining Mobility & Risks of Battery Fires: Findings from an FDNY Symposium

Nov 2, 2023 / by Matt Hinds-Aldrich

We recently discussed the rapid proliferation of batteries in modern homes and businesses and the more worrying proliferation of fires associated with those batteries on AAIS Views. On October 12, 2023, the Fire Department for the City of New York (FDNY) hosted a one-day symposium titled, “A Conversation with the Insurance Industry About Lithium-Ion Batteries.” The intent of the symposium was to share the scope of the problem, the current state-of-the-art in mitigating these types of incidents, and a clarion call for insurers to join the fight in addressing this scourge.

While much of the talk about batteries and fires in the popular press circles around electric vehicles (EVs), the focus of this workshop and the crux of the battery fire problem in New York City (NYC) is focused on micro-mobility devices: eBikes, eScooters, eMotorcycles, and to a lesser extent, hoverboards and novelty mobility devices. Micro-mobility devices are a particularly urban phenomenon that is especially well suited for dense urban, post-pandemic communities. These battery-powered devices need regular battery swaps or charges wherever they can get access to electricity– be it the back of delivery hubs, e-bike stores, restaurants, retail shops, apartments, and most worryingly, egress hallways. When these devices fail—and fail catastrophically— the rapid heat release rate has been shown over and over to lead to extreme fire behavior often blocking egress pathways, and with occasionally fatal results.

A recent fire in NYC highlighted key themes that emerged throughout the workshop. In June 2023, an e-bike retail store in the Lower East Side of Manhattan had a significant fire from a battery that likely was being charged killed four residents in the apartments above the shop. In the 10 or so days after the original incident, there were numerous reignitions including a second major incident that nearly took the life of a police officer. This incident only got worse when the ill-equipped hazardous materials remediation contractor ended up having several additional fires first in a containment barrel in front of the fire building, then in a semi-truck in the middle of the Long Island Expressway, and later in a storage yard. While you’d be forgiven for assuming this was the plot of a Hollywood dramatic comedy, this sequence of events highlights the potential for compounding problems when these batteries are poorly understood and poorly handled. It brought to light three themes:

1. The first fire may lead to more. Firefighters pride themselves on making sure a fire is truly extinguished before they leave. The “overhaul”’ practice, where they seem to destructively remove drywall and pull-down ceilings, is intended to ensure that there are no hidden pockets of fire that might rekindle hours later. However, battery fires, for all intents and purposes, may be extinguished, and then due to stranded energy or a compromised container, the battery may reignite hours, days, or even weeks later. Even batteries that were not directly involved in the fire may have sustained thermal, water, or physical damage during the fire incident and may ignite later.

2. Developing strategies and ordinances for safe charging is the most important mitigation. While FDNY personnel shared information about various devices that caught fire or exploded during normal use, the majority of incidents involved batteries being recharged. Fires during recharging have occurred in single-family dwellings, multi-family apartment complexes, and a multitude of different types of commercial occupancies—often where dozens of batteries are being recharged simultaneously in storefronts or food delivery hubs. The FDNY mentioned the recent legislation in NYC that significantly regulates battery charging in commercial occupancies.

3. Black market and grey market replacement and refurbished batteries present the gravest danger. Many of the presentations at the symposium revolved around replacement batteries and battery-powered devices sourced from overseas. Even more worrisome are DIY refurbishments where less-than-scrupulous vendors procure dead batteries, take the individual cells out of batteries, and reuse, repackage, and resell them to unsuspecting consumers. FDNY and UL personnel also shared that a growing number of battery chargers and other devices they confiscated bore counterfeit UL Listing trademarks, which are being sold in local and online retailers.

The speakers also shared a number of success stories and emerging best practices that communities across the country can and should begin to adopt now to mitigate the potential for future losses and future crises.

  • Improving laws and ordinances. Some communities are beginning to adopt legislation and regulations to address the various risks associated with these types of incidents. Those same communities—NYC being an archetype—are also doing the associated compliance inspections and code enforcement activities to ensure these new regulations are being complied with. However, given the patchwork legal fabric of our country, regulatory advancements in NYC, for example, do not necessarily improve the situation in other major cities, much less small towns. That said, other cities can and do borrow and adapt model legislation from other communities to expedite their own development.
  • Improving products to mitigate, suppress, and/or contain fires. Part of the problem is how quickly new battery-powered devices and threats are emerging in the marketplace. Thankfully, we’re now also starting to see rapid growth in the products and technology to address and prevent these types of fires. There were two types of products discussed at the workshop that stood out. CellBlock is a novel type of hazardous materials inert media that can be used to safely pack damaged batteries for storage. CellBlock also makes a range of pouches infused with the CellBlock chemicals that are used on airplanes and other enclosed environments to contain mobile devices that are failing. The other product was non-combustible battery charging cabinets that are designed to contain and limit the chain reaction of failures if a battery begins to fail while charging. It is worth noting that these differ significantly from “flammable cabinets” that are required for storing flammable liquids. The FDNY noted that several of these cabinets have been given a “Letter of Non-Objection” by the City of New York, which is their de facto stamp of approval.
  • Emerging best practices in how to mitigate, extinguish, and remediate battery fires. The threat posed by battery fires has so far outpaced our ability to address them. In the absence of mature, science-based, universally adopted practices, first responders and remediation practitioners are relying upon their legacy practices and procedures, word-of-mouth conjecture, and a fair bit of ad-hoc experimentation to figure out how to address these atypical incidents. As a result, sometimes these practices end up prolonging or making the incident worse. This should be a concern for insurers. Current practices call for spraying high volumes of water for potentially hours to “drown” a fire—most often seen with electric vehicle fires—yet doing so often exacerbates the environmental contamination that may need to be remediated. Firefighting gear that is exposed to these types of fires may be permanently contaminated and require replacement, which may expand the cost of claims. However, progress is being made with workshops such as this one and groups like the non-governmental private company, Energy Security Agency, which provides training to first responders and towing professionals, destructive testing of battery-powered devices to learn from how different batteries fail, and a free 24/7 emergency advice line that first responders can call for guidance.

While there may not be a whole lot of mature science about how to mitigate these risks, the industry is rapidly trying to fill in the knowledge gaps and increase awareness to reduce the impact of these incidents. Hopefully, we will see this increased knowledge also reduce the financial loss associated with these types of claims. This is very much a topic that insurers should keep on their radar—even if they have not yet had a loss—because the prevalence of these types of devices is growing every day. AAIS is keeping our thumb on this emerging peril. Reach out to Dr. Matt Hinds-Aldrich to learn more.

Tags: Technology, Issues & Trends, New/Emerging Risks, Fire, AAIS Insights, Risk, FLAMES, Battery Fires

Matt Hinds-Aldrich

Written by Matt Hinds-Aldrich

Sr. Risk Strategy Lead - Dr. Matt Hinds-Aldrich, or "Dr Matt", has led several national initiatives and projects to improve how fire departments collect, analyze and use data to focus their efforts, improve their operations, and demonstrate their value. At AAIS, he helps lead the development, expansion, and adoption of the FLAMES (Fire Loss and Mitigation Evaluation Score) methodology for insurers to assess local fire protection and mitigation efforts. Matt’s Ph.D. research at the University of Kent (England) focused upon occupational culture, and specifically, firefighter culture.

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