Electric bicycles and electric scooters—commonly known as e-bikes and e-scooters—are more popular now than ever. These micromobility devices give thousands of riders in metropolitan areas around the world a lower-cost and environmentally friendly way of getting around. But the presence of lithium-ion batteries in these devices introduces the risk of fires and explosions. Most notably, we’ve seen this issue rise to the forefront in New York City where e-bike and e-scooter fires are occurring weekly.
On Tuesday morning, a fire in an e-bike repair shop in Chinatown killed four people and left two others critically injured, according to the New York Times. “It is very clear that this was caused by lithium-ion batteries and e-bikes,” New York City Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said at a news conference.
One day before this tragic incident, at one of the first education sessions of the 2023 NFPA Conference & Expo®, a panel of experts moderated by NFPA Technical Services Engineer Brian O’Connor discussed how lithium-ion batteries present a unique hazard to first responders, designers, and the public; where this new technology fits into the future of fire protection and fire prevention; and what is being done now to help advance safety.
EDUCATING THE PUBLIC
One of the key points raised during the discussion was the need for more diverse and nuanced messaging to help educate consumers about this growing hazard.
“It’s a huge challenge,” said panel member Steve Kerber of the UL Fire Safety Research Institute. “What we’re seeing is people trying to modify these batteries to make the bikes faster or to go for longer periods of time without charging. They’re often using people not qualified to do maintenance on these bikes or they themselves don’t know how to fix them, and this creates a very dangerous situation. Public education is important.”
RELATED: Read “Full Throttle,” an August 2022 NFPA Journal article about the rise in the popularity of e-bikes and the fire risks they pose
“There is a level of expectation of safety of these devices on the part of consumers,” said Lorraine Carli, NFPA vice president of Outreach and Advocacy, who also served as a panel member during the Monday morning session. “If people buy something new, they expect it to be safe. But we know that is not always the case. A more expensive device does not necessarily mean it is safer.”
If people buy something new, they expect it to be safe. But we know that is not always the case.
“What I’m observing is a socio-economic issue,” added Nick Petrakis, an engineer with the Energy Storage Response Group, who joined Carli and Kerber on the stage. “Many people, like delivery workers for instance, rely on e-bikes for their livelihoods, taking advantage of this low-cost means of transportation to get them to their jobs that help support their family. But these people are the hardest to reach when it comes to safety messaging.”
The panel then discussed how to socialize this information when traditional means are not the most effective direction. “These are real issues that need to be solved in simple terms,” Petrakis said, “and we need to meet people where they are.” Providing messaging that is digestible and easy to understand is the best way forward, he said.
Carli agreed, saying it is going to require some new ways of thinking and delivering information. Ideas such as video messaging and partnering with more non-traditional community and local organizations are just a few of the ways to reach these audiences. She then pointed to the grassroots efforts of NFPA public safety educators in communities and research from UL that has helped inform the association’s safety messaging.
BATTERY REGULATION & RESOURCES
As the session began to wind down, the panel touched on research and the use of data, which they say will be able to inform the decisions we make in the future, as well as the role regulations or stricter requirements can play in reducing fire incidents. Kerber pointed to the research UL is involved in which came about from hazmat discussions with the FDNY and their work with sprinklers.
“The good news is this is where codes and standards can play a big role,” Kerber said. “Without requirements and only suggestions for safety, manufacturers don’t feel the need to follow the rules. Having stricter guidelines can lead to a more quality product and less incidents. While it’s slow, it does appear that more people seem to be following this trend of safety first.”
Last fall, NFPA cosponsored a symposium with the FDNY Foundation and UL in New York titled “Lithium-Ion Batteries: Challenges for the Fire Service.” The symposium focused on the concerns fire officials have about the growing number of fires caused by lithium-ion batteries that are powering many of today’s electrical vehicles, in addition to smartphones, smoke alarms, toys, and power tools.
In response, NFPA created a new webpage and tip sheet that provide important safety information for public educators, building and store owners, the fire service, and electricians on the hazards of lithium-ion batteries, most notably around why e-bikes and e-scooters catch fire, what some jurisdictions are doing to better regulate that risk, and what people can do to stay safe if they use, store, or charge e-bikes or e-scooters, and other products that use lithium-ion batteries. You can find this information and more at nfpa.org/ebikes.
If you’re a member of the fire service, you’ll also want to check out our informative NFPA Podcast series, and in particular, a recent podcast devoted to the topic of e-bike and e-scooter safety. Host Angelo Verzoni interviews an FDNY chief about New York’s experience over the last few years with micromobility devices and digs deeper into the subject, talking to a technical advisor at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Looking for additional information about lithium-ion battery safety? A new NFPA webpage, nfpa.org/lithiumionsafety, brings together several existing resources including code information, educational materials, and talking points that can help promote safer use of lithium-ion batteries across a wide range of applications from cellphones to vehicles to energy storage systems. Whether you’re a consumer, member of the fire service, or other fire safety industry professional, find the resources you can share to help educate your community. Stay tuned to this page over the next few weeks as new resources including a toolkit and instructive Q&A section will be added.
With the topic of lithium-ion battery safety at the forefront of today’s news, you can stay on top of the very latest in research, safe practices, and trainings when you attend this week’s Conference & Expo. On Tuesday, Chargepoint experts Kevin Cheong and Gary Eldridge discussed Rapid Charging a Li-Ion Battery Without Killing the Electrical Grid. Later today, David Paoletta from the BSI Group will provide an overview of how lithium-ion battery research and development laboratories, together with EV auto service shops and other companies, are integrating high-voltage lithium-ion batteries into their products and managing the shock, arc flash, and fire hazards presented by the technology.
Check out the full schedule by visiting our website or Conference app.