With 17 deaths caused by the explosions of unregulated e-bike batteries this year, FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh proclaimed that things have reached “a real crisis point.” She made the observation at a Nov. 17 press roundtable to address the issue, noting that the rising death toll is likely going to push the city “over 100 fire deaths [in 2023] for the first time in decades.”
A prominent lithium battery fire in Lower Manhattan killed four people alone in June. Last November, firefighters successfully made a daring rope rescue from the roof of a high-rise building, after an e-bike battery exploded in a luxury apartment. Three people had been trapped in the blaze and were extracted safely. Just last week, multiple members of the same family were killed by an e-bike fire in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Kavanagh said that delivery workers—or people who live near them—are the demographic most at risk of being caught up in deadly fires when lithium batteries explode. After all, delivery workers depend on the vehicles for their livelihoods: “They don’t have the option to not have a bike.” On that front, she did confirm that the FDNY makes sure to reach out to the immigrant communities that have adopted gig work with gusto, letting them know of the risks that faulty batteries pose.
Yet anybody could fall victim to such a catastrophe, she added, noting that “we do worry about people buying devices online for the holidays that may not be regulated.”
Of course, not all e-bikes are at risk of imminent combustion. After all, the FDNY is more than happy to note that cellphones also have lithium batteries in them, and that they don’t regularly explode in people’s pockets. E-bikes that are “UL certified” are deemed safe by regulators. There are also “smart chargers that can turn off” when not in use, Kavanagh added.
The danger comes from knock-off lithium batteries. In addition to other risks such as secondhand bike batteries being tampered with, the largest obstacle to e-bike battery reform is the lack of a national regulatory standard. Kavanagh said the FDNY is undertaking a serious lobbying effort on this front: “There is nobody [on Capitol Hill] who is against it, but it is a matter of urgency. It’s about how quickly they do it.”
In the absence of federal legislation, the FDNY has relied largely on patchwork enforcement mechanisms, such as issuing vacate orders or violations. “Our goal is not to crush small businesses or the end user,” Kavanagh said. She admitted that this was a step up from an overreliance on ticket-writing, which she claims wasn’t a strong enough deterrent to prevent unregulated shops from “continuing to come back.”
The City Council has also enacted local measures to deal with the crisis. A NYS law passed earlier this year requires that all batteries sold in-state be certified.
As a matter of last resort, the Commissioner offered some safety tips that everyone should follow, such as: never put a bike between yourself and the exit of your dwelling, and never modify the bike’s battery in any way. Unlike fires that build in intensity after ignition, lithium battery explosions instantly scatter fuel material widely, turning a room into an instant conflagration. Kavanagh advised that the only truly safe lithium battery is one with a telltale blue UL sticker.