Last July, an electric transit bus in Connecticut burst into flames while parked in a depot. A month later, an electric scooter started a fire inside a New York City apartment that killed a 5-year-old girl and a 36-year-old woman. And last month, a fire believed to have been caused by the batteries of an electric scooter. engulfed a multi-family home in Brockton, Massachusetts.

Lithium-ion batteries have become a ubiquitous feature in new forms of transportation and common household products. They are also found in residential solar power systems.

But when those batteries fail or overheat, they release toxic and flammable gases that can start a fast-spreading fire that’s extremely difficult to extinguish.

“The source of the gases that are creating the flames is confined within a battery of cells that does not allow the entry of water,” said Ofodike Ezekoye, a fire scientist and 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 get the fire under control because it requires a lot more water.”

With the number of fires caused by lithium batteries rising in the US, firefighters and other experts say the training needed to fight them effectively is lagging in many places. Firefighters and city officials are also imploring manufacturers to redesign batteries so that when they fail, the resulting fires can be more easily put out.

“What we’re seeing is these new technologies, as important as they are, hit the field before we know all the potential consequences that could result from them,” said Steve Kerber, executive director of the nonprofit organization UL Fire. Security Research Institute. “It’s not until failures start to occur that the fire service understands what the consequences are. That’s where we need to start catching up.»

A lithium battery test fire conducted by the Fire Safety Research Institute, in which a battery with disabled safety features created a violent explosion.Fire Safety Research Institute

Kerber said his team has done tests on lithium-ion batteries in which it took just 15 seconds from the first sign of smoke to exploding windows in a home. In a traditional fire, it typically takes about three minutes for a room to be engulfed, he said.

«With such explosion hazards, it’s incredibly important that we make firefighters understand how to operate safely,» Kerber said.

Hunter Clare and Justin Lopez, who work for the fire department in Peoria, Arizona, have firsthand experience of the hazards.

In April 2019, the two fire captains responded to a call at a facility that housed thousands of lithium-ion batteries used to store power for a power grid. Batteries are critical components in this type of facility that stores solar energy.

Clare and Lopez arrived with other first responders to find a white cloud of steam seeping out of the building and drifting across the desert.

“It was about 3 or 4 feet off the ground and it was swaying like sea water,” Clare said.

Hunter Claire and Justin Lopez, who work for the fire department in Peoria, Ariz.,
Justin Lopez, left, and Hunter Clare, who work for the Peoria Fire Department in Arizona. nbc news

Firefighters suspected that it was some kind of chemical cocktail. They secured the area and used special devices to test the air, which showed dangerous levels of hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide.

They then waited until the vapors stopped coming out of the building and the flammable gas levels dropped. Nearly two hours passed before firefighters made their way to the front gate of the facility. When they opened it, a large cloud escaped from the building. Before they could retreat to safety, the space ignited, causing a powerful explosion.

Lopez landed 30 feet away, according to a report from the Fire Safety Research Institute. Clare was thrown some 70 feet, her body in flames.

I don’t remember the explosion. I don’t remember anything from there,» Clare said.

Both men suffered serious injuries, including head trauma.

Lopez had a collapsed lung, broken ribs, a broken leg, a severed shoulder, a lacerated liver and multiple thermal and chemical burns, according to the report.

Clare suffered an eye injury, spinal damage, broken ribs, broken ankles, a broken shoulder blade, internal bleeding, and thermal and chemical burns.

But they know they are lucky to be alive.

“It could have been worse,” Lopez said.

“If you got there, and you were in the middle of nowhere and you didn’t have the training you needed, you could rush it,” Clare said.

The rise of electric scooters in cities has led to a massive increase in battery fires.

Lithium-ion batteries caused more than 200 fires in New York City last year alone, killing six people and injuring nearly 150. That’s double the number of battery fires in 2021, according to the Department of New York City Fire Department.

So far this year, electric bike batteries have been identified as the cause of three fires in New York.

He most recent fire exploded inside a building in the Inwood section of Manhattan on February 5. Three people were hospitalized in critical condition, authorities said. Last week, the battery of an electric bicycle caused a fire in a daycare in queens which injured nearly 20 children.

Keith Badler, senior technical trainer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said he is particularly concerned about the threat of a battery fire on a bridge or tunnel. He noted that a large amount of water is often needed to extinguish chemical fires.

“We can’t afford to let it burn in the open, in a tunnel or even on a bridge,” Badler said.

A lithium battery test fire conducted by the Fire Safety Research Institute, in which a battery with disabled safety features created a violent explosion.
A lithium battery test fire conducted by the Fire Safety Research Institute, in which a battery with disabled safety features created a violent explosion.Fire Safety Research Institute

An industry trade group, PRBA, the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, said it is «collaborating with government emergency response agencies and industry organizations to increase awareness of the risks posed by lithium-ion batteries during the handling, storage and transportation.

«We welcome the opportunity to work with all stakeholders in lithium-ion battery outreach and education to prevent lithium-ion battery incidents, increase consumer safety, and develop a consistent message about proper safety procedures and emergency response from lithium-ion batteries,» the group added. .

Some fire departments in Arizona and elsewhere have added a new tool to fight these types of fires: a chemical additive specially designed to absorb heat and smother certain types of flames.

The product, known as F-500 Encapsulator Agent, has shown in early testing to be effective in putting out stubborn fires created by lithium-ion batteries.

“We’re absorbing the heat instead of trying to dissipate the heat through the vapor,” said Ron Lowrey, a former Pennsylvania fire marshal who now works for a company that makes the product, Hazard Control Technologies. «It’s a much better medium for cooling.»