NEW YORK — New York Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh ignored her staff’'s calls for action against deadly e-bike batteries and refused to publicly support banning them from NYCHA housing out of fear of “political winds,” FDNY chiefs in an ongoing ageism lawsuit said in a new court filing.
Last summer, shortly after becoming acting fire commissioner, Kavanagh “refused” Chief Joe Jardin’s “request to publicly support” NYCHA’s ban on having lithium-ion powered bikes and scooters inside buildings at the city’s public housing developments, say court papers made public Tuesday.
Kavanagh declined to act even though Jardin believed a ban would make housing complex residents safer, says the newly amended complaint in the chiefs’ lawsuit.
Kavanagh “justified her actions based on the concern about the ‘political winds’ because such a ban would negatively impact, among others, low-income delivery persons,” the lawsuit says.
When Jardin and Chief Frank Leeb put together a symposium to educate FDNY members and other fire departments about the dangers of lithium-ion battery fires that September, Kavanagh wouldn’t invite City Council members to the event.
She “skipped the symposium altogether — despite the presence of fire commissioners from across the country and Canada — because she did not want (the) FDNY ‘out in front’ of the issue,” the lawsuit claims.
“Despite Kavanagh’s recent media campaign concerning the dangers of lithium-ion batteries, for years she suppressed and did not support action within the FDNY to press for regulations and bans, and even suppressed a campaign to promote greater awareness of the risks,” the lawsuit states.
An FDNY spokeswoman said the allegations against Kavanagh are “meritless.”
“She has been relentless in sounding the alarm about the dangers of lithium-ion batteries for both the public and FDNY members,” spokeswoman Amanda Farinacci said. “She is a national leader on this topic, and any allegation that she has not paid this dangerous issue appropriate attention is preposterous.”
But Jim Walden, the chiefs’ lawyer, said Kavanagh’s current stance against e-bike battery fires can’t make up for years of inaction.
“She can’t whitewash what happened in 2020 and 2021,” Walden said. “She stood idle for the better part of two years while lithium-ion related fires skyrocketed and the deaths from those fires increased significantly from that period.”
The allegations come from three witnesses who heard Kavanagh balking at the chiefs’ concerns, as well as documents and other evidence, Walden said.
Her refusal to back NYCHA’s rule change came after the FDNY had already banned e-bikes and scooters from their own building, Walden said.
“The department banned them in their own premises, and the chiefs of Fire Prevention and Safety wanted to do more, including support a ban in NYCHA buildings,” Walden said.
“She still refused to take on the issue because she didn’t want backlash from politicians and those who sympathized with delivery people who use these e-bikes.”
Kavanagh excluded the chiefs from any City Hall meetings she may have had to hash out what to do about e-bike fires, Walden said.
“She was meeting with other agency heads before the FDNY did anything and excluded the chiefs with the expertise on these dangers from the meetings,” Walden said.
The e-bike battery bombshell is the latest in a string of allegations against Kavanagh in the ageism suit. Fire chiefs claim they were harassed, maligned and ultimately demoted because they were too old in Kavanagh’s eyes.
At 40, Kavanagh is one of the city’s youngest commissioners.
Assistant Fire Chiefs Michael Gala, 62, Jardin, 61, and Michael Massucci, 59, Leeb, 54, retired EMS Chief James Booth, 59, and EMS Computer Aided Dispatch Programming Manager and Deputy Director Carla Murphy, 56, say they were targeted by Kavanagh and her team “because they were at or near the age of 60″ according to the lawsuit filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court.
The lawsuit was filed in March, about a month after Gala, Jardin and Assistant Chief Fred Schaaf were all demoted to deputy chief by Kavanagh.
Their demotions sparked a mass protest by FDNY chiefs who criticized Kavanagh and asked to be demoted in rank and moved out of department headquarters.
Kavanagh hasn’t signed off on any of the demotion requests, FDNY officials said.
The lawsuit claims Kavanagh and FDNY Deputy Commissioner JonPaul Augier conspired to force the older chiefs “off medical leave” as well as “threaten to withhold earned or customary benefits.” They also “cut off their computer access” and “leaked false information about them to the press.”
Schaaf, 60, was added to the lawsuit as a plaintiff in the amended complaint, and Deputy Mayor of Public Safety Phil Banks was added as a defendant for advising Kavanagh and rubber-stamping the demotions, the lawsuit claims.
Over the years, the FDNY has been vocal about the dangers of lithium-ion battery fires, which have taken 13 lives so far this year, including four residents living above a Chinatown bicycle repair shop that burst into flames when an e-bike battery exploded.
Since officially becoming fire commissioner, Kavanagh has been on the forefront of the fight, promoting a massive crack down on bicycle shops that are improperly storing and charging e-bike and scooter batteries. She’s also written opinion pieces about their dangers and has asked the federal government to join the fight against these volatile batteries.