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FDNY agrees with NYC Council's lithium-ion bills

Published November 15, 2022

NEW YORK (BRAIN) — New York fire officials say they agree with five bills that the City Council is considering to address lithium-ion battery fires. The Council did not vote on the bills at a meeting Monday. A new citizens group calling for solutions to the charging fires held a news conference before the meeting.

One of the bills proposed by Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer would require the FDNY to develop an informational campaign to educate the public on fire risks posed by mobility devices powered by lithium-ion batteries. Thomas Currao, FDNY's acting chief of fire prevention, said his department is already doing that and would continue.

Another bill proposed by Brewer would prohibit the sale and assembly of second-hand lithium-ion batteries that have been assembled or reconditioned using cells removed from used batteries. Violators would be subject to a civil penalty, ranging from $200 for a first violation to $1,000 for each subsequent violation within two years. It would also prohibit the assembly of such batteries.

Julian Basil, FDNY's fire co-counsel, told the council that lithium-ion batteries have to be designed as a system for the mobility device and the charger. He said used and non-certified batteries present "significant" safety issues.

When asked by the council how many fires were started because of faulty equipment or improperly matched electrical systems, Currao said the department is still trying to determine the number. Fire damage to the equipment means they have to rely on witness interviews, he said. "We should look at this as a lithium-ion challenge" and not an e-bike or e-scooter issue, he said.

New York City is home to a large contingent of e-bike food delivery service operators who rely on lithium-ion batteries for their livelihood. While some residents use e-bikes for recreation or quick transportation, Basil said delivery operators put far more demands on their equipment.

The bikes are "getting a beating out there. This is not a recreational item people are using for a couple hours. This is something that's being used 16 hours a day on city roads with potholes, in all sorts of weather, with road salt on it. This may be a contributing factor. That's what our marshal investigations are trying to get additional details on."

Lithium-ion battery fire safety has become a serious topic for the city after incidents have steadily risen in the past few years. So far this year, FDNY said there have been 191 fires, 140 injuries, and six deaths from lithium-ion fires in the city. Councilwoman Joann Ariola, chair of the Committee on Fire and Emergency Management, said the city is on track to more than double the number of lithium-ion battery-related fires from last year and quadruple the number from 2020.

On Nov. 5, FDNY responded to a high-rise midtown Manhattan fire caused by an e-bike catching fire, Currao said. Thirty-eight people were injured. "As of today, we have experienced as many injuries, deaths, and fires related to lithium-ion batteries as we have from the previous three years combined," he said.

FDNY told the council that long-term solutions will have to come from manufacturers creating safer electrical systems. FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh has been in communication with the Consumer Product Safety Commission and urged the commission to enact regulatory measures and incentivize safer designs.

The CPSC "responded in October, noting a variety of measures the commission is taking to address this issue, including collecting specimens and conducting research and data analysis here in NYC," Currao said. "The CPSC will use this knowledge to develop proposals for new standards. We will continue working with the CPSC."

Creating a battery-swapping system or establishing outdoor charging stations came up during the meeting as possible solutions, allowing workers and residents the option of not charging inside residences. A representative for Safer Charging, a group whose mission is to establish a battery-swapping system in the city, also spoke during the meeting and held a news conference outside. 

The other bills proposed:

  • Require mobility device batteries to be listed and labeled by a nationally recognized testing laboratory or other approved organization to be sold. Punishment would range from no monetary penalty for first-time violators to $1,000 for each subsequent violation within two years.
  • Require the fire department to report on safety measures to mitigate the risks associated with powered mobility devices.
  • Provide food delivery workers with information on safety measures that mitigate the fire risks posed by powered mobility devices. It would require that the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, in consultation with the fire department, establish materials that provide guidance on safe use and storage of powered mobility devices. Additionally, food service establishments, third-party food delivery services, and third-party courier services would be required to distribute such materials to food delivery workers.

In the immediate future, George Farinacci, vice president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, warned the council via Zoom of what it could expect.

"As we come into the colder months, it's common to see a rise in fires as electric outlets get strained by supplemental heating devices," he said. "We can expect this to be compounded by the increased electric demand of mobility devices.

"Powered mobility devices are commonly stored for charging near the entrance of the home or apartment. That means when the fire occurs, that fire will be between the occupants and their exit to safety. It will also be between the firefighters and the occupants."

SaferCharging held a news conference Monday.
Topics associated with this article: Electric bike

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