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Apartment building owners and landlords throughout the city will soon have to post a new emergency preparedness bulletin released by the FDNY that, for the first time, includes warnings about the potential dangers of lithium-ion batteries used in electric mobility devices.
New Yorkers have increasingly been using electric bikes, scooters and other electric mobility devices after they became popular and more available — and also legal — during the pandemic. The devices, however, have also been causing more fires in homes as many users continue to store and charge their electric bikes inside their dwellings — something the FDNY explicitly says you shouldn’t do.
Instead, the FDNY now recommends that e-bike owners should store and charge their devices “in a safe facility, not in your apartment” to prevent the possibility of a spontaneous fire erupting. According to the FDNY there have already been 191 fires caused by lithium-ion batteries in electric mobility vehicles this year that have resulted in 140 injuries and six deaths. In 2021 there 104 fires that caused four deaths and in 2020 there were 44 fires with zero deaths.
The bulletin arrives just a few weeks after a fire in a 12th-floor apartment of a midtown high-rise that injured 40 people and required a daring rope-aided rescue of one person by firefighters was attributed to an exploding battery on one of several e-bikes stored near the entrance of an apartment. The owner of the apartment was storing, charging and repairing at least five electric bikes in the apartment, FDNY officials said at the time.
The bulletin also recommends that New Yorkers only use e-bikes that are “certified by nationally recognized testing labs,” and that users should always charge their devices by plugging their bikes directly into the wall and not into an extension cord. “The extension cord or power cord can overheat and cause a fire,” according to the bulletin, which also warns of a similar outcome if owners use a non-approved battery or charger.
The bulletin also instructs users not to charge bikes overnight or when they are out of the house. It also advises that the devices should not block apartment exits or be stored near flammable furniture and objects.
Possible regulations coming
The midtown fire also sparked debate about regulating lithium-ion batteries that made its way to the City Council’s Fire and Emergency Management Committee in mid-November. Council members have so far introduced five different bills that would prohibit the sale of second-use and non-certified lithium-ion batteries, mandate that the FDNY further educate the public and have the department further report on safety measures.
Among the FDNY officials who testified at this hearing in support of the bills, Thomas Currao, the FDNY’s acting chief of fire prevention, spoke about the extreme and unusual dangers that fires caused by lithium-ion batteries can pose.
“Lithium-ion battery fires present challenges to firefighters that are different from other types of fires. In addition to what we might consider a traditional fire, there’s a threat of thermal runaway,” Currao said at the hearing. Excess heat generated by the battery, he said, could cause a “domino effect within the cells of the battery and potentially create an explosive state, producing an ejection of gases, shrapnel and particulates.”
The FDNY has been informing the public about e-bike issues in a variety of other ways including by hosting a symposium for lawmakers and members of the public in September and by creating public service announcement videos the department posted on their social media accounts in October.
The Department of Sanitation has also put out notices concerning lithium-ion batteries that instruct New Yorkers not to dispose of them in the garbage or recycling for fear of the waste catching fire. DSNY instead recommends that New Yorkers looking to dispose of lithium-ion batteries or electric mobility devices should bring them to disposal events or special drop-off locations.
Joseph Rogers, an FDNY deputy chief fire inspector, said of the newly-released bulletin that the Department “felt it would be a good time to use this information to educate the public in a different way.” Rogers runs a special investigative unit within the FDNY specifically tasked with investigating fires caused by lithium-ion batteries and electric bikes.
Because the FDNY’s fire protection inspectors aren’t legally allowed to enter individual’s homes, the FDNY will have to rely on educational materials like the emergency preparedness bulletin, as well as whatever regulations are passed in the future, to help decrease the number of fires caused by these batteries as well as the injuries and deaths that result.
Landlords and apartment owners will have until April 2023 to post the new emergency preparedness bulletin and distribute them to the tenants in their buildings.
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