E-Bike Batteries Trigger Deadly Fire

E-Bike Batteries Trigger Deadly Fire

A 3-alarm fire in lower Manhattan killed four people and left two others in critical condition in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Lithium-ion e-bike batteries are to blame, according to the New York City Fire Department. The blaze, which began in an e-bike shop on the first floor of a multi-story, mixed-use building in the Two Bridges neighbourhood, ignited because of a battery, according to Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh.

“It is very clear that this was caused by lithium-ion batteries and e-bikes,” she said during a press briefing. “There was a very large number of both batteries and e-bikes. This location is known to the fire department…it is very, very important we get the work out how incredibly dangerous this is.” While the city official spoke midday Tuesday, a pile of charred e-bikes and electric scooters sat in the background — heaped below the yellow awning of the burned storefront.

Calls about smoke and fire at the 80 Madison Street location came in shortly after midnight, Kavanagh noted. Though firefighters and other emergency personnel got to the site quickly and were able to rescue some, the circumstances of the burn made things difficult. The “sheer volume of fire” created by e-bike batteries is “incredibly dangerous” and can make it “nearly impossible to get out in time,” for people stuck inside a burning building, the commissioner explained.

“This exact scenario where there is an e-bike store on the first floor and residences above, with the volume of fire created by these lithium-ion batteries, is incredibly deadly,” the FDNY official emphasised.

When lithium-ion batteries catch fire, it is explosive — not smouldering. Lots of flames can erupt very quickly, as demonstrated in a cautionary video that FNDY posted on Twitter Tuesday morning. The footage shows numerous battery explosions in quick succession.

Tuesday’s deadly fire is far from the first such battery-related incident in NYC. So far in 2023, the blaze was the 108th lithium-ion battery-caused fire in the city. Including the four killed today, there have been 13 fatalities related to battery explosions this year, Kavanagh told reporters. She noted those numbers were significantly higher than those from 2022, by this same time. In April, one child and one teenager were killed in a separate e-bike incident in Queens.

Elsewhere, e-bike and electric scooter fires have also caused injury and death. Nearly 200 injuries resulted from such combustions in the United Kingdom between 2020 and May 2023, according to a report from The Guardian. Lyft took 1,000 of its e-bikes off San Fransisco streets after battery fires in 2019. Hoverboards, too, have become known for the fire danger they pose. Nationwide, battery-powered micromobility devices caught fire more than 200 times between January 2021 and November 2022, according to reports received by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Many factors can contribute to lithium-ion devices going up in flames, including manufacturer defects and improper charging and storage practices. The FDNY advises that people should only ever purchase devices that have been safety tested (indicated by the Underwriters Laboratories Mark), should closely follow manufacturer guidances on charging and storage, keep devices at room temperature, not charge devices on soft surfaces, and keep batteries away from anything flammable.

However, the residents living above the e-bike shop at 80 Madison Street had little to no say in how the batteries were being handled in their building. The e-bike shop remained open and operational despite complaints and failing fire inspections at least two times before, according to Dan Flynn, FDNY chief fire marshal. In August 2022, the store was once again found to be in violation of the fire code, and fined $US1,600. Violations included improper e-bike charging practices, the sheer number of e-bikes at the premises, and issues with the building’s electrical wiring.

Asked by a reporter why the shop hadn’t been shut down, Flynn responded, “there’s a process in place.” He also referenced forthcoming policy changes from the NYC City Council and the mayor’s office that could improve the enforcement of battery policies.

Fire department officials encouraged New Yorkers to report concerning e-bike retailers to the city’s 311 system. In addition, Kavanagh urged city residents to make sure they know how to safely escape their apartments in the event of a fire and to check their smoke detectors — despite having warned that early detection systems often aren’t enough in the face of battery explosions.

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