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Dangers & Hazards of Fires Involving Lithium-Ion Batteries

Tuesday, March 28, 2023
On Sunday, March 26, 2023, the Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company hosted an awareness class on the dangers and hazards of fires involving Lithium-Ion batteries. These are the energy sources for most eVehicles, eBikes, eSkateboards, personal eHovercraft, etc., and personal electronics such as laptops, tablets & notebooks, even cellphones, etc. This is a major emerging threat facing the modern fire service, as the problems are multifold and complex.
The class, lasting about three (3) hours, was attended by nearly 60 firefighters from volunteer fire companies from across Northern Delmarva. A morning brunch of coffee, orange juice, and donuts, etc., was provided prior to the class, along with lunch afterwards; catered by Mission BBQ. The class was presented by Geoffrey Donahue, Chief of the Emergency Response Division, Maryland Department of the Environment. As a Sophomore at Washington College, Chief Donahue got his start with the Chestertown VFC in the Fall of 1990. As a Life Member of Chestertown VFC, he holds a special place in his heart, and has perpetuated his close association with us throughout the years. He rarely passes up an opportunity to visit the place of his humble beginnings.
At the risk of becoming too technical, there are aspects of this topic the public should be aware of. First, while the technology of Lithium-Ion batteries is considered safe by many, please recognize that it is unforgiving. Especially smaller devices, they do not tolerate external damage and extreme temperatures, hot or cold, while charging. Second, only equipment approved by Underwriters Laboratories, or a similar reputable testing company, should be used. Only the charging equipment provided with the device, or replacement equipment provided only by the manufacturer, should be used. Third, it is never a good idea to allow this equipment to charge unsupervised, i.e., you’re close, but not immediately near the device while charging. It’s an even worse idea to charge while unattended, i.e., leaving to run errands while it’s plugged in. Finally, remember to read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions on use and charging.
There was one takeaway we think important for the public to understand. Fires involving Lithium-Ion Battery powered devices can be hazardous. Fires involving eVehicles, because of the size of the battery, are especially dangerous. These fires do not respond to extinguishing efforts using dry chemical or carbon dioxide fire extinguishers, a medium frequently used to knock down vehicle fires. Water is the only effective extinguishing agent, and it takes copious quantities… in most cases tens of thousands of gallons. You see, once the battery goes into a condition known as “thermal runaway”, it continues to generate high heat. Water is needed not only to extinguish the fire, but keep the battery cool until the hazard passes. Even then, there is a chance the fire could reignite hours, even days later. There have been instances where a damaged Lithium-Ion battery has ignited more then a week after the damage first occurred.
It's important the lay public understands, in some cases, our best course of action may be to let the vehicle fire burn until the battery consumes itself, where the hazard is then eliminated. This could take hours to accomplish, with resultant inconvenience because of road and area closures. There would be circumstances where we would need to extinguish the fire. Each case is unique, and the course of action is determined by the circumstances. Some might question allowing the fire to burn. Once the vehicle has burned in any way, it’s already destroyed / totaled. No additional monetary loss is incurred. In most cases, allowing it to burn and thus destroying the battery, is the safest, most effective plan to follow.
This is emerging technology, and we will continue to adapt our actions to deal with these emergencies when they happen.

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