Don’t be Shocked by Li-ion Battery Incidents

By Tom Miller; originally published in the 2023 issue of Firefighter Strong

In almost 40 years in the fire service, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “hotter” topic (no pun intended – well, yeah, pun intended) than the issue of electric vehicles (EVs), energy storage systems (ESS), and lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. Their emerging prevalence has impacted the entire continuum of the fire service, from conducting risk assessments to fire cause and origin investigations. Sadly, deaths across the country are now being attributed to incidents that started from these types of energy storage systems.

Understanding the Hazards
Li-ion battery incidents pose several key hazards to first responders. The first hazard is the rapid development of a thermal event that can and may lead to a fire. That resulting fire may have lots of secondary hazards, not the least of which are high heat (1700° to 2000°F), fragmentation or “ejection” of battery components, and the emission of toxic byproducts of combustion such as hydrogen fluoride or phosphoryl fluoride. Then there is the issue of “stranded energy” which may pose a hazard of reignition or electric shock. Some EVs may have 100 kWh of energy stored in them and some commercial applications may have up to 3,000 kWh or more.

I would be remiss if I didn’t state and stress that it is not just fires that responders have to deal with in regards to these energy systems. Li-ion batteries don’t like water/moisture and incidents such as immersion in water or flooding, damage from external energy such as in a crash or accident, or other adverse events may lead to responses. Lastly, there is the burning question (oops! I did it again) of, “What do we do with it after the incident is over?” That question is going to have to be resolved within each AHJ and, from experience, that answer varies widely depending on where you are located.

Be Prepared for Response
Like it or not, this technology is out there and is not going away. To make sure your department is prepared, start with a practical risk assessment to determine the hazards that they may potentially face. That risk assessment should look at each of the eight domains shown in the graphic below. For many that concept is a foreign idea, but it should be the basis of properly planning, training, and preparing for incidents in your area – not just those involving Li-ion battery devices.

Gather information from your DMV on EVs registered in your zip codes; look at building permit data for solar installations with back-up battery units; drive your area – see what you didn’t see before, i.e. wind turbines, solar panels, etc. Make the topic part of your life safety prevention and education events. Work to educate those you protect.

Once you know your risk(s), provide training for your members and automatic and mutual aid companies. There are online trainings and operational level hands-on trainings available in many jurisdictions. However, I would caution “buyer beware,” as there are some who are charging as much as $14,000 a day for training that left some agencies with a bad taste in their budgets and their member’s minds.

When considering which training program to use or adopt, go back to your risk assessment. I would suggest you ask the following questions:

  • What are my risks? EVs, personal mobility devices, home energy storage systems, commercial energy storage systems, other?
  • What are my response expectations? Does the training have practical applicability to the needs of my response area?
  • Where will we go to find the training we need? Online? State training? Regional fire school or conference? Other?
  • How has that training been vetted? Has the material been peer reviewed? Has the material been tested and/or accredited?

There are a lot of great resources out there with information that first responders can use to train and prepare for incidents involving these energy systems – whether it involves power tools, e-bikes, EVs, or home energy storage all the way up to commercial applications of energy storage systems. The NVFC, NFPA, U.S. Fire Administration, IAFC, IAFF, General Motors, state training entities, and others have made getting information out to frontline first responders a priority.

Once you decide on your training program, the next step is to develop SOPs/ SOGs so that your members have an expected plan and mode of response to these types of incidents. The NVFC has a draft SOP/SOG that your organization can use as a basis for general response. Your SOP/SOG should be a “living” document that can be updated as new information or technology is received.

Your SOP/SOG should also take into account resources that will be needed and/or used in an incident response. There are specialized containers, nozzles, suppression “blankets,” specially engineered plugs, “dumpsters/immersion tanks,” and other tactical equipment out there that departments are using. Each organization has to decide what mode/ method they want to employ. For many fire departments, it is a budgetary issue. Whatever strategy and tactic you put in your SOP/SOG, it is your responsibility to ensure that all of your members are properly trained on the deployment of that tactical resource.

In summary, as with all risks we face, how you prepare will directly – either positively or negatively – impact how you and your department will perform should you encounter an incident involving Li-ion batteries or energy storage systems. Proper planning and preparedness can and will go a long way in ensuring responder safety and outcomes with minimal negative consequences.

Tom Miller is a 38-year fire service veteran. He is a Pro-Board certified Firefighter II, Fire Instructor III, and Hazardous Materials Technician & Incident Commander, and is state certified to the Technician Level in various aspects of technical rescue. He is the West Virginia Director to the NVFC and serves as chair of its Hazardous Materials Response Committee and Pandemic Response Task Group. Miller has a bachelor of science degree from West Virginia State University and a master of arts degree from the School of Education and Professional Studies at Marshall University.