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On Sunday morning, FDNY firefighters responded to yet another fire caused by an exploded lithium-ion battery, the 31st so far this year. The five-alarm fire started, video released by the FDNY shows, after a battery attached to a scooter parked inside the backroom of a supermarket rapidly caught fire and then exploded, eventually engulfing most of the building and injuring seven people, including five firefighters.
There have already been more fires caused by lithium-ion batteries so far this year than there were in the entirety of 2019, the first year the FDNY started tracking the devices, and these fast-moving fires have resulted in 40 injuries and two deaths through Sunday. In response to the growing threat, the FDNY has stepped up its publicity campaign to educate the public on the risks that lithium-ion batteries pose, pushed regulators to ban unsafe batteries and sent fire marshals and fire protection inspectors to crack down on fire safety violations across the city.
In one February raid of five different locations across the city, the FDNY’s fire protection inspectors and fire marshals discovered hundreds of lithium-ion batteries being stored and charged illegally alongside dozens of bikes. The fire marshals issued 14 violation orders and 17 summonses to the property owners following the enforcement actions.
Several of the recent fires occurred in dwellings where many batteries and bikes were being stored or charged in the same room, including a high-profile fire at a Manhattan high-rise last fall, where firefighters found five bikes in the room where the fire started.
‘This is an urgent issue’
The FDNY’s fire protection inspectors and fire marshals, however, are not permitted to inspect private dwellings, so the FDNY has been relying on its public awareness campaign to stop the fires.
Both FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh and Mayor Eric Adams have spoken about the batteries’ dangers. Speaking to PIX11 Sunday, Kavanagh said that noting that the batteries caught fire “almost underplays how dangerous this is — they really explode.”
“They create so much damage that it is very unlikely that someone could get out in the case that this caught on fire in their home,” the commissioner said. In February, Kavanagh wrote the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission encouraging regulators to take stronger action against uncertified bike batteries including by imposing fines on battery manufacturers and seizing devices when they arrive at American ports.
On Tuesday, Kavanagh, speaking alongside U.S. Representative Ritchie Torres and Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, again called on federal regulators to do more to prevent lithium-ion battery fires “We have to come at this from every angle, federal, city, state, regulation, education, outreach, this is an urgent issue and we have to attack it in every way we can,” she said.
Adams, speaking to PIX11 said, the city needs “real education to let people know how to properly store their bikes.” Adams also said that he’s looking to go after “bootleg” lithium-ion batteries, which are inexpensive and relatively easy to acquire but can be far more unsafe than UL-certified batteries.
UL certification is conducted by an Illinois-based safety organization approved by OSHA to perform safety testing. The FDNY’s guidance for e-bike owners advises them to never charge the devices overnight or in front of home exits or entrances. If uncertified or modified lithium-ion batteries overcharge, the guidelines say, the bikes could explode and cause catastrophic damage.
The Council takes action
The City Council last week passed a package of five bills that would, among other actions, restrict the sale of uncertified or second-use batteries and require both the FDNY and Department of Consumer and Worker Protection to put out more educational information and reports about the issue.
“The toll that fires are increasingly having on families and communities is devastating and requires the urgent attention of all levels of government,” Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said in a statement following the legislation’s passage.
Council Majority Leader Keith Powers also proposed additional bills last week aimed directly at supporting the many workers who use electric bikes and other types of powered mobility devices. One of the bills would require that businesses who use the battery-powered bikes for commercial purposes provide fireproof containers to store and charge the devices. His other bill would require the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection to create a program that would allow New Yorkers to exchange their used lithium-ion batteries for new ones at “reduced cost or no cost.”
In Albany, a bill proposed by State Senator Liz Krueger would ban the sale of uncertified lithium-ion batteries that don’t meet minimum safety standards. And at the federal level, Torres, the Bronx congressman, is set to introduce a bill that would establish consumer product safety standards for lithium-ion batteries used in bikes and scooters.
“Overwhelmingly we see the devices that catch fire being either non-certified devices or devices that have been tampered with in some way,” Kavanagh said Tuesday. “If you have one of these bikes, please do not charge it while you are not watching it and please do not charge it in an area in your home that is between you and [the exit].”
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