The Growing Risk of Battery Fires in New York
Good morning. It’s Tuesday. We’ll revisit a problem we last looked at a couple of months ago — fires caused by lithium-ion batteries that power e-bikes and scooters.
Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times
The call came at 1:41 a.m. a week ago today. A fire was ripping through a trim two-story rowhouse next to a vacant lot in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
What set the blaze apart from others that firefighters faced last week was that inside, they found some 50 lithium-ion batteries, the rechargeable devices that provide power for e-bikes and e-scooters. Daniel Flynn, the fire marshal, said many had been left charging overnight.
“Nobody was watching them,” he said, adding that fire officials believed someone who lived in the rowhouse had been repairing the batteries. “Having 50 inside the same location is tremendously dangerous.” Not only that, he said, the 50 batteries “were not functioning properly, so they were set to fail.”
It was a large-quantity twist on a disturbingly frequent call for firefighters. Flynn said it was the 24th fire in New York City involving lithium-ion batteries so far this year, almost as many as in all of 2019, when there were 28, with 16 injuries and no deaths. Last year, there were 216 fires involving batteries, along with 147 injuries and six deaths — up from 104 fires in 2021, 79 injuries and four deaths.
“It seems like the number is doubling year by year,” Flynn said.
Seeking federal help
The Bushwick fire came four days after the fire commissioner, Laura Kavanagh, pleaded for federal help, asking the chairman of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission to “discourage manufacturers from trafficking in uncertified products” — lithium-ion batteries that do not meet safety standards.
She suggested banning universal battery charges and pressing manufacturers to ensure that “e-micromobility devices,” as e-bikes and scooters are known, function only with batteries they are designed for. And, noting that “unskilled tampering and refurbishment seem to be a source of safety problems,” she also suggested regulations to make batteries harder to open.
“We know that there are basic steps that can make e-micromobility devices safer while not significantly increasing the cost to consumers,” she wrote. She also urged the commission to seize substandard batteries at ports before they go to wholesalers or retailers.
A spokeswoman for the commission said the agency was reviewing Kavanagh’s letter. The spokeswoman, Patty Davis, said the commission had already written to battery manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers in December, asking them to see that their devices met e-mobility battery standards. She also said the commission was working with UL Solutions, the testing-and-safety company long known as Underwriters Laboratories, on standards for e-bikes themselves.
Kavanagh said after the Bushwick fire that “we are coming at this problem from all angles.” She noted that Mayor Eric Adams had set up an interagency task force and that the City Council is considering several bills that would reduce the risk of battery fires. The New York City Housing Authority proposed a ban on storing e-bikes in its buildings last year but faced opposition from deliverers who depend on bikes and batteries to do their jobs.
Ligia Guallpa, the executive director of the Workers Justice Project/Los Deliveristas Unidos, which campaigns for higher wages and better working conditions for delivery workers, said her group was concerned that regulations would have a disproportionate effect on deliverers.
“There is a perception that lithium batteries are only on e-bikes,” she said, “and that’s not true. They’re on lots of things, including your phone and your computer. Agencies don’t understand the different types of batteries. The city does not understand who is using what types of batteries.” She said that charging stations need to be set up across the city to buttress the $1.7 million delivery hub that her group is building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Flynn, the chief fire marshal, said that the man who had been working on the batteries in Bushwick was not around when the fire broke out. But the blaze trapped a 67-year-old woman on the top floor.
“In a traditional fire, which develops rather slowly, we believe that that victim would have been able to make their way out,” Flynn said, noting that the rowhouse had smoke detectors and a sprinkler system. But battery fires “occur so violently” and spread so fast that there is much less time to escape. Fire officials did not release the woman’s name but said she had survived after several days in critical condition.
For now, the Fire Department’s guidance on lithium-ion batteries, like the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s, emphasizes caution. “Do not charge them when you are sleeping,” Kavanagh said after the Bushwick fire. “Do not put them in the only means of exiting your apartment or your hallways.” The commission also said chargers should be unplugged when the batteries reach full capacity.
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When I moved from Los Angeles to New York City, I brought with me what I considered my “winter clothes”: a wool coat and leather boots.
The weather was mild the year I arrived, and I recall wondering why people always talked about the hard, cruel New York winters. My coat and boots served me just fine right through the following November and December.
Then came the next January, with single-digit temperatures and what seemed like unending snow. After a few days of enduring bone-chilling cold and trying to make my way through snow drifts, I realized that this was a real New York winter and that I was ill-equipped for it.
I went searching for a very warm coat and snow boots, which weren’t easy to find in mid-January because everyone else had done their shopping earlier.
I managed to find a coat at Saks but could not find any boots in my size anywhere in the city.
Finally, I ended up at Bloomingdale’s, where I saw racks of snow boots. Hooray!
But the smallest size I could find was a 9 ½ and I take a 7.
I approached a salesman.
“Do you have any snow boots in a size 7?” I asked.
“Madam,” he said, “if you wanted snow boots in a size 7, you should have bought them in November.”
I can proudly say I now own of three pairs of snow boots that I dutifully get out of storage every November.
— Michal Longfelder
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Melissa Guerrero and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected]