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Getting ahead of the flames

Addressing the unique risks of lithium-ion battery fires

March 9, 2024 
By Laura Aiken

The aftermath of a scooter’s thermal runaway in Toronto. Photo credit: Toronto Fire Services

“The future is electric.” 

Plug this phrase into a search engine and you’ll find everyone from governments to news agencies and consulting firms deploying this catchy-catch-all; it’s become the green mantra.  

With all this electricity now being drawn from lithium-ion battery (LIB) powered devices, bikes, scooters, hoverboards, and road vehicles of all sizes, this mantra is packing a ton of fire power. An LIB fire is no ordinary fire foe, it erupts rapidly and with volatile force, almost like fireworks having a baby with a grenade. Thermal runaway leads to the fire, an ironic name since the only thing its resulting fire tries very hard to run away from is being extinguished. 

The magnitude of the problem lies in emerging data. 


As of mid-November 2023, New York’s FDNY reported 239 lithium-ion battery fires that ended in 124 injuries and 17 deaths. These figures were released as the fire department extinguished an e-scooter blaze that killed three members of one family.  

On New Year’s Eve, an e-bike burst into flames on a Toronto subway car. One person was treated for injuries. There were 55 LIB fires in the city in 2023, up from 29 in 2022. 

In 2022, rechargeable batteries, including lithium-ions, were responsible for five of the 10 fire fatalities in Vancouver. By June 2023, an article in the Vancouver Sun reported  Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services was responding to over 50 calls a year related to e-batteries.

In July 2023, Montreal Fire Operations Chief Martin Guilbault told the media that the city saw seven LIB fires in 2021 and 21 in 2022.

The market for energy storage systems (ESS) is burgeoning. About $5 billion was invested in battery energy storage systems in 2022, McKinsey & Company consulting reported, which they analyzed to be a threefold increase from the previous year. McKinsey estimates the global market will reach $120 to $150 billion by 2030. That’s only six years away. 

Then there’s production of the batteries themselves. Ontario is poised to become a battery manufacturing hub, with Volkswagen’s first ever North American electric vehicle (EV) battery cell gigafactory setting up shop in St. Thomas. The industrial park area will be the size of about 850 football fields, reports VW. The company plans to roll out 25 new EV models by 2030.

These investments come alongside a Canadian federal government mandate, which, as written states: “Under the new Electric Vehicle Availability Standard, auto manufacturers and importers must meet annual zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) regulated sales targets. The targets begin for the 2026 model year, with a requirement that at least 20 percent of new light-duty vehicles offered for sale in that year be ZEVs. The requirements increase annually to 60 percent by 2030 and 100 percent for 2035.” 

While fuel-cell technology driven by hydrogen and technologies like wind and solar are certainly players in the green market, when it comes to transportation and devices, LIBs are the darlings; the talk of the town. It seems less is being written about downsides. The Washington Post published an article in April 2023 that shed some light on this: “To run, EVs require six times the mineral input, by weight, of conventional vehicles, excluding steel and aluminum… These minerals, including cobalt, nickel, lithium and manganese, are finite resources. And mining and processing them can be harmful for workers, their communities and the local environment.”

Canada ranks eighth in the world for lithium mine production and sixth in terms of reserves, reports the federal government. On Feb. 6, Automotive News Canada reported that Canada has overtaken China “as the country with the highest potential to build a secure and sustainable battery supply chain,” based on the findings of the research firm Bloomberg NEF.  

As novel as the excitement around them seems, LIBs are nothing new — just far more ubiquitous. Lithium “lithion/lithina” was discovered in Stockholm circa 1817 by Johan August Arfvedson. The first commercial rechargeable LIB was introduced in 1991 by Sony after nearly 20 years of false commercial starts and developments by multiple scientists. 

LIBS are a beneficial and generally safe technology, but no one wants to encounter one in thermal runaway. 

Thermal runaway explained

When an LIB fire occurs, thermal runaway is the event fire departments have the showdown with. Thermal runaway describes the quick uncontrolled release of heat energy from a battery cell. More heat happens than the battery can release. A single cell of thermal runaway can become a chain reaction in neighbouring cells, which can cause a fire or explosion. Thermal runaway can start due to an internal short circuit, or from thermal, mechanical or electrical abuse, states the NFPA. Signs of thermal runaway are bulging batteries and rising temperature (a thermal imager can be used to detect this). Identifying signs of failure helps stop thermal runaway before it kabooms. Once it’s in thermal runaway, the battery either needs to burn until it runs out of fuel, or the heat needs to be removed from the reaction via a cooling agent until the chemical reaction ceases. 

The human factor and Fire

LIBs are not generally prone to failing on their own, but they are sensitive to various abuses. Human behaviour is at fault in the vast majority of LIB fires involving hand-held devices or micro-mobility vehicles like scooters and e-bikes. Incompatible parts, like chargers not designed for that particular battery, don’t necessarily know when to stop charging. LIBs need to dissipate heat, otherwise they build heat until thermal runaway ensues. Tinkering with e-wheels via additional battery packs or modified wiring to juice up the power or increase the mileage is a recipe for disaster, as is rough handling of a product that causes damage to the cells. Also, some inexpensive e-bikes, scooters or hoverboards may not be manufactured to appropriate standards, certainly exacerbating any additional risk added by the human touch. Issues like this are far fewer in the highly regulated environment of EVs, which are difficult to modify. People are not likely to try to take the “governor” off their Tesla, so to speak. That being said, there are cases where people have tried to shortcut an expense with a homemade power pack to charge their Tesla. Not a good plan. 

For people in urban environments, micro-mobility gets you free and far for a reasonable price point. Their growing popularity is understandable. Storing them in suites is dangerous (leaving them outside is a recipe for theft), and a popular place to store them is handily by the door, effectively blocking egress. 

The public needs to change their risk perceptions, but there are challenges to this. 

“Proponents of green energy are not necessarily wanting to hear this,” said Toronto Fire Services (TFS) Chief Matt Pegg. “It seems like bad news. Education is more challenging if people don’t want to hear the message.”

But everyone needs to understand why they should not buy aftermarket parts, why UL certification is important, and why buying from credible manufacturers and following their guidelines is key to heavily mitigating risk. People need to calibrate to reality because LIB fires are rapid and aggressive. Being in close proximity does not bode well for your survival. Many agencies supporting first responders have diligently worked to assemble the resources to facilitate this very key public education piece. 

TFS Deputy Chief Larry Cocco said the International Association of Fire Chiefs has current information on its website and work is underway on a toolkit that will be shared once complete. While educating human behaviour to change is difficult, there are good resources to be found now. The Fire Safety Research Institute has several good videos demonstrating LIB fires in action, and a seven-minute PSA that TFS shares, said Cocco. The NFPA has a full suite of resources to help fire departments educate their communities (please see the NFPA Impact column on page 20 for a full run-down and where to find them). 

Laura King, the NFPA’s regional director for Canada, pointed out that if something is on the market, people think it’s safe, that someone is looking out for them. What is required is a bit of street smarts about basic LIB safety. Pub ed will require, as always, community specific strategies. For example, food delivery workers are likely candidates for modifying their e-bikes to get a longer charge out of them, said King, so disseminating information to restaurants that interact with these people is a good strategy.  

Challenges for Fire services

Battery chemistries are advancing quickly. There are five leading battery chemistries at this point, said Cocco. An ESS carries unique considerations. For example, if one of the batteries fails, it produces a highly volatile gas. Some are designed to auto-ignite in the event of failure, explained Cocco, meaning that if the gas sensor goes off it will essentially self-destruct so it doesn’t spread to the other systems. Many Canadian fire services are not currently made aware of when an ESS is installed, and their installation intersects with other provincial legislation such as electrical and building codes. A normal garage fire becomes a new ballgame if an EV is parked inside, or they may be electric snowblowers or other LIB powered tools in the garage. An LIB may not be the cause of the fire, but if it exposed to the fire, it changes the playbook. 

Then, there’s the issue of reignition. TFS had an LIB incident involving a transport load of scooter batteries. The fire re-started three days later, and then again 87 days later. If there is heat left in the battery, and it can be difficult to get to all the tightly packed cells, heat can build and and cause reignition, said King. Pegg noted that realistically, TFS is one of the few departments in Canada that has the resources to do a multi-day fire watch, but what else is one to do? That being said, when TFS does have to deploy resources in this manner, Pegg sees a direct correlation to a degradation in response time performance in the city.  

Fire departments need be aware of the balance of probabilities for a secondary event, pre-plan, have a disposal plan including appropriate vessels and instructions for the owner.

“We can’t assume the responsibility, but we can mitigate the hazard,” said Cocco. 

An example of battery modification. Photo credit: Toronto Fire Services

NFPA, codes, testing and putting out the fire

There’s a big lag in terms of understanding the dangers of energy storage systems and the codes and standards reflecting them. This isn’t a human race first. Look at the introduction of gasoline and combustible engines. The automobile was invented in 1892. By 1920s America, millions of gasoline fueled cars were on the road, but building codes didn’t really address mass storage of gasoline until the 1980s, said Cocco.  

“Tragedy gives us a snapshot of the risk. But codes and standards have always been slow to keep up.” 

The NFPA standard 855 is the standard for the installation of energy storage systems, and it’s designed for a system that doesn’t move, said King. The standard would apply if the standard were in the codes, but it’s not (though it will be in the American codes soon). 

“The NFPA is working with the UL and some other groups on ESS safety and the potential to develop a Canadian version of the NFPA 855 standard that we hope will then be referenced in the Canadian codes,” said King. 

Now, for the million-dollar question…what’s the best way to put out the fire? NFPA and other organizations have done full-scale testing with LIBs and EVs; these tests indicate water to be the best method. 

“Scientific evidence and data point toward water as the preferred extinguishing agent. People used to think it was foam. Foam will smother the fire, but it won’t cool the battery. When you have a lithium-ion fire situation, you need to cool the battery to prevent that continued thermal runaway, so that’s why water is the extinguishing agent of choice and not foam,” said King.  

The NFPA is neutral on the use of blankets because it hasn’t done full-scale testing, said King. She’s not sure expensive testing on blankets will be conducted, but has seen fire departments successfully use blankets to smother fires and prevent spread. 

Rural areas that respond to ESS fires need to know where they are going to get the necessary amount of water from, because it’s a lot more than the average bear of a fire. Consider if you have the capacity for tanker shuttles or mutual aid if you are going to be responding to these fires. Fire departments will need to see what works for them. New technology brings new solutions, but those solutions need to be tested. 

“We also know from testing firefighters should be wearing PPE and SCBA through all the overhaul during this type of fire. A lot of gases come out of a lithium-ion battery, including carbon monoxide. We need to see evidence and the data because obviously we don’t want to put firefighters or any other responder at risk,” said King. 

The NFPA is also reviewing EV firefighter techniques, safe battery transport and studying the environmental impacts of LIB fire run-off.  

Auto extrication and ZEVs

Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEVs) are defined as battery-operated electric, fuel-cell operated electric and plug-in hybrids, and Statistics Canada data shows Canadians are getting hotter to trot for them: “In the third quarter, new zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) made up 12.1% of all new motor vehicles registered. This represents an increase from the third quarter of 2022, when ZEVs were 8.7% of all motor vehicle registrations.” British Columbia, followed by Quebec and Ontario are leading adoption. 

Jason Defosse, rescue specialist and FDIC lead instructor with MES-Code 4 Fire & Rescue, has really immersed himself in the details of ZEVs, more commonly referred to as EVs, and the new guidance needed for the LIBs that power them. 

“What we need to do is train,” he said. “At the awareness and operations level.” 

From his perspective, an EV is no more likely to catch fire than its internal combustion counterpart. The protocols for response are different. 

When you arrive at an EV or hybrid incident, remember sight, smell and sound, he said. Here’s his advice: Approach on a 45-degree angle or from the side, never front or rear as you need to assume it’s live. Confirm the type of vehicle — say, a Tesla. Initiate “aggressive wheel chocking.” Drop a block on the back wheel, drop one in the front. Continue “reading the wreck” to see what you are up against, then do more wheel chocking, blocking and the extrication assignment. 

Sound is critical. Buzzing, cracking, and popping sounds suggest damage to the battery and a possible thermal event. Notice the smell as you approach. 

“If you smell a sweet electric odour, otherwise recognized as a cherry bubble gum smell, stop immediately, go back to the rig and pack up. Come back with hose streams and tools to lift the car if needed but be prepared because this thing is off-gassing. Come back with fire suppression, a thermal imaging camera and a four gas meter. These things identify things we cannot. If there are still people trapped, you don’t run away, you’ve got to get water going. Fire fighting is inherently dangerous. This can be a dangerous assignment, and while extremely low, the potential is there.”

If there is off-gassing, firefighters have SCBAs, but police and paramedics do not so they should be moving upwind and away from that smell. 

Defosse partnered on an app with the Energy Security Agency in the U.S., which in conjunction with another group, ESRG, he said is single biggest large-scale LIB testing facility. Testing is critical, not only to glean accurate data, but because not all LIBs are the same. Tesla has gone through over a 100 different battery changes in the last decade, he said. 

When it comes to the extrication, you need to develop your rescue plan because aluminum bodies are different, as are shutdown procedures and you need to use manufacturer guidelines to know what the first responder cut loops are, all of which is evolving information. The major lessons to note for extrication are: no blind cutting and never push off the floors with rams or spreaders because of the location of that high voltage battery pack. In general, refrain from cutting or interacting with any of the high voltage components. 

He identified two important resources for fire departments. One is Call 2 Recycle. They have packaging materials, protocol and shipment rules for the aftermath of an LIB incident, which is essentially a hazmat scene. Additionally, the Energy Security Agency offers North America-wide, 24-hours a day risk assessment and on-scene guidance at no cost via 1-855-ESA-SAFE (372-7233). You’ll get an expert on the other end of the line that will have access to the vehicle’s emergency response guides and assist with the fire fighting operation. They also offer training for various agencies and host events all over North America. 

LIBs are an ever-evolving issue on the education, inspection and response strategy front. Getting the information out, catching codes and standards up to the current day, and enforcement will all be players in continuing to address the potential dangers. The market is growing very fast, which means you will only see more and more LIB-powered everything. 

“I believe this is or will very quickly become the single biggest public fire safety risk of our current time and our generation,” said Pegg. 

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