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Queens councilwoman declares ‘state of emergency’ over fires caused by exploding lithium-ion batteries

Mar. 1, 2023 By Bill Parry

FDNY fire marshals have determined that exploding lithium-ion batteries on e-bikes have caused more than two dozen fires injuring nearly 40 people and killing two already this year. The frequency of the blazes linked to the recharging of the batteries is four times higher than this time last year.

“These are incredibly dangerous devices and we must make sure that members of the community are handling them properly and using them safely,” FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said during a public safety briefing at City Hall on Friday, Feb. 24.

She added that the Adams administration is working with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the City Council on additional regulatory measures.

“I think it is a state of emergency,” Councilwoman Joann Ariola told QNS. “I think that the majority of fires that have happened since I’ve taken office and become chair of the Fire and Emergency Management Committee have been caused by lithium-ion batteries and lives have been lost. I think it should be a priority topic for the City Council.”

Ariola became alarmed by two recent house fires in Queens.

One man was killed and 10 people were injured during a Jan. 20 house fire on 89th Street near LaGuardia Airport in East Elmhurst that was sparked by an exploding lithium-ion battery. Five days later, 18 children were injured, one seriously, when a battery exploded at a Kew Gardens Hills home. The youngsters were rescued from an illegal daycare facility that was operating in the basement.

“Several of the tragedies involving lithium-ion batteries have involved devices that were being charged by the front doors of residential units,” Ariola said. “When those batteries failed and caught fire, they blocked the only egress available to these units. This led to the residents being trapped inside with no way out — something that has had catastrophic consequences in the past.”

Ariola is a co-sponsor on five bills that are coming up for a vote in the City Council.

Into 656-A would require the FDNY, in consultation with the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, to develop an informational campaign to educate the public on the fire risks posed by powered mobility devices and safety measures that mitigate such risks. Intro 663-A would prohibit the sale, lease or rental of powered mobility devices, such as e-bikes and electric scooters, and storage batteries for these devices, that fail to meet recognized safety standards. The first violation of this law would be met with a warning, but subsequent violations would carry civil penalties of up to $1,000 per violating device.

More than 60 e-bikes were destroyed at a bicycle shop in Sunnyside in October 2022 that endangered tenants living in a second-floor apartment. (QNS file photo)

Other measures would require the FDNY to report on safety measures to mitigate fire risks associated with powered mobility devices and a bill that would require city agencies to provide food delivery workers with information on safety measures that mitigate the fire risks posed by powered mobility devices.

“I think bills for regulation are important. They do make a dent, but they don’t go far enough,” Ariola said.”We have to talk about further regulation of motorized scooters and the lithium-ion batteries.”

She added issues surrounding the dangerous batteries are constantly evolving.

“Fire inspectors recently came across a building that had hundreds and hundreds of these lithium-ion batteries just plugged in and recharging and what’s happening in residential apartment buildings,” Ariola said. “That’s a major public safety issue.”

Another issue of concern she is working on with the firefighters and EMS unions is bunker gear safety.

“The firefighter’s bunker gear isn’t necessarily washed right away. In fact, as soon as we came into office, we made sure that an additional laundry facility was completely funded and it will open up on Randalls Island soon,” Ariola said, “But in the meantime, they’re not washing their bunker gear as often as they should so any residue from that lithium-ion battery fire is remaining on their gear and they’re wearing it over and over.”

Ariola said the new laundry facility will be open soon. Meanwhile, she is concerned about one particular part of the firefighter’s bunker gear.

“I especially worry about the hoods that go over their heads, that’s closest to their nose so they’re breathing in all of this toxic residue right into their respiratory system,” Ariola said.

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