The Fire Department is shouldering the heavy burden from blazes started as a result of overheated lithium-ion batteries, according to Chief Fire Marshal Daniel Flynn.
Flynn sat down with amNewYork Metro for a one-on-one interview to discuss the device’s deadly dangers and the death toll they are leaving in their wake.
=Statistically, these devices are responsible for hundreds of fires and numerous deaths, putting both the public and firefighters’ lives at risk, yet they are also responsible for powering the livelihoods of thousands of delivery workers and others who simply use e-bikes to get around the Big Apple. The FDNY say they recognize and respect this fact, still Flynn has seen the catastrophic damage these batteries have wrought over the last several years and urges that people be aware of this when deciding to own the product.
“They provide our citizens a tremendous amount of flexibility in their schedule. It helps people in industries such as delivery services, commuting, recreation—there’s a lot of good that comes from these devices. But we just want to stress to people that there is a danger that comes related to the batteries,” Chief Flynn explained. “We just want to make sure that they understand the risk that comes along with them.”
That risk is a hefty one according to FDNY statistics.
In 2021, Flynn revealed that the city saw 104 fires with 79 injuries and 4 deaths. This continued to grow in 2022 with 220 fires believed to be sparked by lithium-ion batteries and 147 injuries and six deaths. Shockingly, with only two full months into 2023, Flynn said that the year has already seen 30 fires from the batteries, 40 injuries, and 2 deaths.
Year over year the department has seen a sharp increase in these blazes which Flynn also pointed out is not subject to one area but instead appears to be equally distributed across the five boroughs with the exception of Staten Island, which is not as deeply affected by the fires.
Since these batteries are still being sold to the public and are continuing to pose a higher risk than ever, Flynn said the FDNY has developed a task force to investigate the root causes.
“A lot of times they’re being charged unattended, which we definitely recommend that you do not do. We want to make sure that if you’re charging them that you are in the area to see if a problem arises,” Flynn said, adding that owners sometimes try and fix the product themselves, which is a real issue. “We have seen fires recently where people are tinkering with them. And that’s a very, very dangerous situation. We don’t recommend people try to fix these devices. If it fails, replace it, replace it with a battery that is from the manufacturer that you’ve purchased your original bike with.”
Flynn also pointed out other safety issues that cause great harm both when residents try to escape an inferno and when firefighters attempt to make entry. The fire marshal said that people have left their e-bikes by the doors to their apartments, making it almost impossible to escape. He also warned buyers not to purchase cheap batteries since they have been known to explode into a burst of fire without even being on charge. He also recommends individuals replace their batteries when they begin to see some wear and tear while also ensuring smoke detectors are nearby.
“These fires go from 0 to 100,” Flynn stressed, adding that while usually a traditional fire starts small and then expands if not put out; however a lithium-ion battery fire can immediately explode into a huge blaze.
“These fires, they are a fireball in no time. It’s a blowtorch,” he said.
Still, lithium-ion batteries and the fires that stem from them are a relatively fresh phenomenon, forcing the FDNY to do a deep dive into the products and their consequences.
“It’s only become an issue really over the last couple of years. So, we’re trying our best to track it and do that research, going back and interviewing the owner of the bike, seeing what it was subjected to prior to the fire, tracking what brands are purchased and failing, what they’re used for, where it was stored, whether it was being charged at the time. These are all questions that we’re asking of the consumer. However, when we do get these fires, they’re the battery in the bike at times are so badly damaged that it’s hard to really ascertain that information,” Flynn said.
While being respectful of the need for these products, Flynn couldn’t help but exhibit some frustration with the chaos these products are unleashing. One death is too many for the men and women in the FDNY, and Flynn recounted one horror story in which a child was killed about one year ago when an e-bike was set ablaze while charging in his room. Due to the sheer number of instances, Flynn does not believe this is simply teething problems with new tech.
“This is unique. This is kind of a big deal for us, 220 fires we’ve investigated in 2022. That’s a lot of fires. People are dying. Six people died,” Flynn said. “There is no playing with that number right, six people are dead. Over two months now, we’ve had two people die in 2023. So, I’m hoping that that trend doesn’t continue.”
Flynn is advocating for people to ensure they have a fire extinguisher on hand and if they see anything wrong with the devices to immediately call 911. Flynn said the FDNY is also supporting new legislation to help curb the fireballs.
“I think the city council is addressing it and they proposed several bills that are being looked at closely right now. And we did speak at a city council hearing, and we supported all those bills and I think they would make a difference,” Flynn said.