FDNY Updates FEP Bulletin to Address Lithium-Ion Battery Risks
E-bikes, e-scooters, e-mopeds, and other small electric mobility devices have experienced a surge in popularity. These devices use a small electric motor to increase the range and reduce the effort it takes to reach a destination. For example, e-bikes look and behave like traditional bicycles with the addition of an electric motor and battery for extra power when pedaling. This extra boost allows the rider to traverse hills and travel further distances with greater ease than with a traditional bicycle.
COVID accelerated the adoption of micromobility devices in cities, as scooters and bikes were perceived as safer alternatives to public transportation. In New York City, the increased adoption comes at a time when the city is making big investments in increasing street safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. At the Micromobility America Conference in October 2022, Mayor Adams gave opening remarks and touted micromobility as a great way to move around neighborhoods, stay healthy, and make our cities greener. He also spoke of nearly $1 billion in investments to build out hundreds of miles of protected bike and bus lanes and car-free plazas over the next five years in New York City.
Although the benefits of micromobility in lower emissions and easier transportation are considerable, there has been a growing number of injuries and deaths from fires started by lithium-ion batteries in micromobility devices. In early November 2022, there was a fire in an apartment building on Manhattan’s East 52nd Street that injured 43 people and forced firefighters to rescue a woman dangling from a 20th-floor window. The cause of the fire was determined to be a micromobility device residents left charging overnight by their front door. According to FDNY Chief Marshal Daniel Flynn, this fire was the 200th fire caused by lithium-ion batteries in 2022 and there have been more deaths and injuries from e-bike fires in 2022 than in the prior three years combined.
We’ll take a look at the particular dangers caused by lithium-ion battery fires and the FDNY and legislators’ responses to these dangers.
Dangers of Lithium-Ion Battery Fires
Nearly all micromobility vehicles are powered by lithium-ion battery packs. Lithium-ion batteries are popular because of how much power they can put out at a given size and weight. However, lithium-ion batteries are extremely sensitive to high temperatures and inherently flammable. These battery packs tend to degrade much faster than they normally would, due to heat. If a lithium-ion battery pack fails, it will burst into flames and can cause widespread damage.
Batteries can fail and become dangerous due to manufacturing defects, improper usage such as keeping the battery very close to a heat source, charger issues, or low-quality components such as a poor battery management system that keeps battery cells in sync to make sure that cells don’t overcharge or release too much energy at once.
While elaborating on the nature of these types of battery fires, Chief Marshal Flynn stated, “These bikes when they fail, they fail like a blowtorch. We've seen incidents where people have described them as explosive incidents where they actually have so much power, they're actually blowing walls down in between rooms and apartments."
FDNY Updates Safety Guide
In response to the dangers posed by mobility devices powered by lithium-ion batteries, the FDNY has updated the 2022–2023 Fire and Emergency Preparedness Bulletin for New York City Apartment Buildings. You can find the updated version at www.nyc.gov/assets/fdny/downloads/pdf/codes/2022-2023-fep-annual-bulletin.pdf.
New York City requires apartment building owners to print and distribute residential fire safety guides to apartment building residents and building staff. Part I of the FEP Guide is the Building Information Section—a form completed by the owner for each building indicating the building’s construction, fire protection systems, means of egress, and other information specific to the building for which it is prepared. Part II of the FEP Guide is a guide created by the FDNY designed to educate all building occupants about ways to prepare for emergencies, prevent fires, and protect themselves from various fire and non-fire emergencies.
The annual bulletin, which the FDNY recently updated with e-bike fire safety information, is meant to supplement information provided in the FEP Guide. The purpose of the bulletin is to outline critical tips that differ from year-to-year in a briefer format as opposed to the larger guide, which may undergo revisions on a less frequent basis. The updated bulletin instructs tenants to stop charging devices immediately and to call 911 if they see any of the following danger signs:
- Fire or smoke;
- Battery leakage;
- Signs of battery overheating;
- Strange battery smell; or
- Battery making odd noises.
The annual bulletin also includes the following fire safety practices to reduce the risk associated with mobility devices powered by lithium-ion batteries:
- Only buy devices that are certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory, such as UL (Underwriters Laboratories), ETL (Environmental Testing Laboratories), and CSA (Canadian Standards Association). These organizations test products to ensure they meet industry standards and are safe to operate under normal circumstances;
- Use the original batteries, power adapters, and power cords supplied by the manufacturer or replacements that are either recommended by the manufacturer or certified by a testing laboratory. Unapproved batteries or chargers may cost less, but they carry a higher risk of fire;
- Plug devices directly into an electrical wall outlet to charge. Do not use extension cords or power strips. Lithium-ion batteries can overload extension cords and power strips, resulting in a fire;
- Charge e-bikes and other mobility devices in a safe facility, if possible, rather than in an apartment. As an owner or building manager, you can consider providing a safe charging and storage area. This step will both decrease the risk of a devastating apartment fire and make your building more attractive to tenants who use such devices;
- Position devices away from entrances or exits when charging so that a fire does not prevent escape. And never charge an e-bike or e-bike battery on or near your bed or couch, or close to drapes, papers, or other combustible materials;
- Monitor devices and batteries when charging. Never charge these batteries overnight or when away from the apartment; and
- Follow the manufacturer’s charging and storage instructions.
The City Council has held a hearing on proposed legislation to improve safety rules and education for lithium-ion batteries used in micromobility devices. At the hearing, FDNY’s Acting Chief of Fire Prevention Thomas Currao said, “The use of powered mobility devices multiplied dramatically during the pandemic. They have become ubiquitous among delivery workers, fueling around-the-clock convenience that New Yorkers have come to rely upon. Our challenge is to strike the appropriate balance of ensuring public safety while not unnecessarily disrupting the livelihood and enjoyment of users.” Currao said the FDNY supports four of the five bills proposed by members of the Council, including:
- Intro. 656: This bill requires the Fire Department to develop an informational campaign to educate the public on fire risks posed by powered mobility devices;
- Intro. 663: This bill would prohibit the sale of batteries for mobility devices that are not listed by a nationally recognized testing laboratory or approved organization, such as Underwriters Laboratory;
- Intro. 749: This bill would require the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection and the FDNY to provide information on safety measures and also require food service establishments to provide delivery workers with information;
- Intro. 752: This bill would prohibit the sale and assembly of second-use lithium-ion batteries.
According to Currao, the FDNY has concerns about Intro. 722, which would require the Fire Department to report to the City Council on safety measures to mitigate fire risk associated with powered mobility devices, including details like the geographic location and circumstances of each fire, and building type at which it occurred. He had concerns about whether producing the report would be the best use of department resources.