First Due: Take Charge of Battery Safety

Nov. 10, 2023
Adam Barowy and Becki Rowan-White provide perhaps the most specific instruction and hands-on-useful educational materials so that fire departments can protect themselves and their community from lithium-ion battery fires.

With the ever expanding use of lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery-powered devices, a new wave of fires is occurring, particularly in urban and suburban communities. Departments are responding to fires that involve Li-ion batteries in vehicles, e-scooters and energy storage systems. These fires ignite and accelerate differently from “traditional” fires. From both incidents and research experiments that were conducted by UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute (FSRI), we know that unregulated e-scooter batteries can go into thermal runaway with little to no time to react after initial indications of failure.

Signs of failure include hissing/popping noises, bubbling or bulging and white, wispy smoke. Such unregulated Li-ion-powered devices can cause fires and gas explosions that can blow out windows, spread fire throughout a structure, and injure occupants and first responders.

New resources
Traditional firefighting tactics weren’t developed for and can’t prepare first responders for these fires. Hence, many departments learn on the job. This could lead to near-miss scenarios, line-of-duty deaths and civilian fatalities. These incidents even could happen at the station as departments begin to utilize Li-ion-powered tools and devices.

This is a critical time to prioritize learning about these fires to best prepare the fire service to prevent and respond to these incidents and educate their community.

FSRI compiled numerous educational resources. Recently, FSRI conducted a study in partnership with FDNY to examine the fire safety hazards of Li-ion battery-powered e-mobility devices in homes. Firefighters can take “The Science of Fire and Explosion Hazards from Lithium-Ion Batteries” free online training. It includes a printable guide on Li-ion battery construction, thermal runaway, and fire and explosion hazards. A resource library contains presentations on Li-ion battery-related challenges and mitigations.

Research can improve our understanding of what’s happening to cause the fires as well as how they burn. This knowledge can help to shape operational decision-making and inform future standard operating procedures.

Educating citizens
Citizens need more education to protect themselves by taking action to prevent these fires and know what to do if a battery fire occurs. Traditional fire safety messaging isn’t preparing the public to be battery-safe. Whether storing these devices in an apartment, house, garage or shed, people can take steps to toward battery safety.

FSRI developed turnkey public safety materials that departments can use to educate the community on how to “Take C.H.A.R.G.E. of Battery Safety” to reduce the number of fires and their associated costs and injuries.

The “Take C.H.A.R.G.E. of Battery Safety” campaign highlights six main messages:

  • Choose certified products.
  • Handle Li-ion-powered devices with care.
  • Always stay alert for warning signs.
  • Recycle devices and batteries properly.
  • Get out quickly if there’s a fire.
  • Educate others on safe practices.

Choose certified products. Many consumer items are purchased online, and third-party safety certification isn’t required by some sellers. Consumers should look for a product that’s listed/safety-certified by a nationally recognized testing lab to ensure the product meets safety requirements.

Handle with care. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and only use the charging equipment that comes with the product. Don’t modify the battery or the charger. Store batteries away from extreme temperatures, direct sunlight, exits and anything that’s flammable.

Always stay alert for warning signs. Check battery-powered devices often to make sure that they work properly. Look for damage or abuse, such as swelling, punctures and overheating. Be alert for unusual hissing or popping sounds.

Recycle devices and batteries properly. Take old or damaged batteries to the nearest battery recycling center for safe, responsible disposal.

Get out quickly if there’s a fire. Fires that involve Li-ion batteries move fast. Get out immediately if you see or hear warning signs. Follow your home fire escape plan and call 9-1-1.

Educate others on safe practices. Spread the word to help to protect friends and loved ones.

The gift of safety
Although these tips are important year-round, the holiday shopping season approaches. Ensuring that your department and community are educated on the importance of understanding and avoiding the risks that are associated with overuse or misuse helps to keep everyone safe.

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