In Vancouver, at least five people have died this year in fires that started in the lithium-ion batteries that power e-bikes. Fire Chief Karen Fry told CBC News in June after a fatal fire, that overcharging e-bike batteries is not just a Vancouver issue.
“This is a problem, and this is a problem not only in the city of Vancouver,” Fry said. “This is something that we’re starting to see across North America. And in Vancouver, if we’re on trend with where we’re sitting right now . . . we’re in big trouble.
Fry was right. An article in the NFPA Journal article by my colleague Angelo Verzoni notes that in New York City, electronic mobility devices had caused more than 120 fires in the first eight months of 2022, putting the city on pace for more than 200 e-bike or e-scooter fires this year. Five people died in such fires this year.
Energy storage systems are essentially a bunch of lithium-ion batteries packaged together, and they’re everywhere: there are small versions in our mobile phones, and bigger, powerful units – many owned by provincial utilities – in municipalities across Canada.
In March, SaskPower announced that it had chosen On Power of Longueil, Que., to build Saskatchewan’s first utility-scale battery energy storage system. The 20-megawatt facility will be built in northeast Regina and will be able to power up to 20,000 homes for one hour.
Fortunately, SaskPower is working with the Regina Fire Department and other agencies to ensure that there are safety plans in place, and Fire Chief Layne Jackson is referencing NFPA 855, Standard for the Installation of Stationary Energy Storage Systems.
For firefighters, the challenge with energy storage systems is how to extinguish fires caused by thermal runaway. The build-up of energy and heat in an energy storage system (ESS) means fire can burn for a long period of time and may ignite adjacent cells, which can catch fire and explode, causing injuries and fatalities.
There have been massive ESS fires and explosions in several countries since 2016, but a 2019 fire at a utility-scale ESS in Surprise, Arizona, was really the impetus for NFPA 855. The Surprise incident, in which eight firefighters were injured, has been analyzed by experts, and three reports have been written. The conclusion: the fire was caused by faulty batteries produced in the manufacturing process.
NFPA 855 acts as a guideline for Canadian fire departments. The standard outlines processes for training, pre-incident planning, hazard mitigation analysis, testing, decommissioning, and post-incident handover procedures to the ESS owner. Annex C in the standard, Fire Fighting Considerations, is a key resource.
Battery companies such as Panasonic are promoting the use of energy storage systems in homes and encouraging buyers and builders to consider them as a backup to the electrical grid or, in some cases, instead of the grid.
What’s a fire department to do if there’s a house fire in a home with an energy storage system? How will a department know there’s an energy storage system in a home?
Chapter 15 of NFPA 855, One- and Two-Family Dwellings and Townhouse Units, addresses many of these issues, and NFPA’s energy storage systems web page, www.nfpa.org/ESS, provides information, fact sheets, links to relevant standards, research foundation reports, blog posts and webinars, and videos.
The NFPA Journal article quoted Marty McCormack, deputy chief of training at the Boston Fire Department, who is writing standard operating procedures for firefighters responding to ESS incidents.
“Something that’s always said on the scene of a fire is ‘Fire’s knocked down, companies are overhauling,’ ” McCormack said. “And overhauling means you’re opening things up, exposing leftover fire spots. With an ESS, doing that could be deadly. So these SOPs and other training efforts will really be about teaching firefighters to wait for things to burn through before dousing them with water or making sure something’s not going to explode if you open it.”
NFPA offers a three-hour, self-paced online training program in energy storage and solar systems safety (www.nfpa.org/ess), with videos, animations, simulations, and review exercises that provide basic knowledge of electrical theory, types of photovoltaic installations, and battery chemistries.
A new edition of the 855 standard comes out later this year, and will build on recommendations in the current version, which includes provisions such as prohibiting the construction of ESS systems on a combustible roof and ensuring responders can access ESS sites.
Laura King is the reginal director for NFPA in Canada. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at LauraKingNFPA.
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