New York City’s top fire official has asked the federal government to do more to keep substandard lithium-ion batteries out of the United States and regulate chargers and electric bikes, after hundreds of battery fires and six fatalities in the city in 2022.
Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh penned a letter to the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission thanking the agency for its work in issuing multiple recalls of flawed e-bikes, but urging it to seize more substandard batteries at ports, ban “universal” battery chargers, and push e-bike and scooter companies to make their devices work only with approved batteries.
“The FDNY is on the front lines of this fight against deadly fires involving batteries … and we are grateful for every tool available to help,” Kavanagh wrote.
The fires have posed serious threats to the delivery people using electric bicycles, people using battery-powered devices in houses and apartments and to firefighters themselves. Kavanagh noted that in one incident last year, FDNY firefighters had to use ropes hanging out of the 20th floor of a building to save people trapped by a blaze.
Earlier this month, NBC News reported that the rapidly expanding use of lithium-ion batteries is posing new challenges for firefighters across the country. When the batteries fail or overheat, they release flammable, toxic gases that can spark a fast-spreading fire that is extremely difficult to extinguish.
“The source of the gases that are creating the flames is confined within a cell battery that will not allow water in,” said Ofodike Ezekoye, a fire scientist and a 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.
In cities like New York, where the number of battery fires has doubled between 2021 and last year, the rise of electric scooters and e-bikes has been a major contributor.
So far this year, electric bike batteries have been identified as the cause of three fires in New York.
A blaze broke out inside a building in the Inwood section of Manhattan on Feb. 5. Three people were hospitalized in critical condition, officials said. In late January, an e-bike battery sparked a fire at a day care center in Queens that injured nearly 20 children.
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,” it added.
Rich Schapiro, Vicky Nguyen, David Paredes and Andrew Blankstein contributed.