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New checklist helps Massachusetts fire officials identify lithium-ion battery fires

The spark of a lithium-ion battery fire.
Massachusetts Department of Fire Services
The spark of a lithium-ion battery fire.

A new tool developed by the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services is helping to identify when a fire is caused by a lithium-ion battery.

The Lithium-Ion Battery Fire Investigative Checklist launched on Oct. 13, 2023. Since then it has helped to identify 50 fires caused by lithium-ion batteries in the past six months, more than double the state's annual average detected by a local and national fire data reporting system, according to Jake Wark, public information officer for the state Department of Fire Services.

"In the past five years or so, Massachusetts has averaged about 20 to 22 lithium-ion battery fires, according to Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System data. And anecdotally, the fire service in Massachusetts has long believed that the true number is higher. But for whatever reason, those fires weren't being reported," Wark said.

He said having accurate data about how many fires are caused by these batteries can help the state prepare for them.

"This is really helping us measure the scope of the problem in Massachusetts and probably elsewhere as well. If Massachusetts is underreporting these fires, then most other states are also probably underreporting them. So it will help the fire service get an idea of just how prevalent these fires are and prepare for them," he said. "Maybe having additional equipment, maybe having it on trucks instead of at a station, or [having firefighters] attend trainings that will assist them in fire ground tactics more geared toward those specific types of fires."

Lithium-ion batteries power everything from small devices including e-cigarettes and smartphones to scooters, e-bikes, and electric vehicles. Wark said the batteries are very common and safe as long as they are used properly.

"Under most conditions, lithium-ion batteries are a very safe form of energy. They pack a lot of power into a small device, and we have to be careful about that. But, you know, the devices that we use every day, in most cases, in almost all cases, they're safe to use," he said.

Wark said because the fires can be very difficult to extinguish, it's important to be careful with devices that use these batteries.

"You do want to be careful about what we call mechanical, electrical or thermal abuse, meaning you don't want to drop these things out of window, you don't want to overcharge them, and you don't want to leave them in very hot or cold conditions, like, for example, a hot car in the summertime," he said. "Those are conditions in which we know that they can fail and fail very rapidly."

The checklist is used by the State Police Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit assigned to the State Fire Marshal’s office, and local fire departments are being urged to adopt it as well. It can be used by fire investigators to gather basic information about fires in which lithium-ion batteries played a part. That information is then entered into a database to identify patterns and trends.

According to a press release from 2019 to 2023, an average of 19.4 lithium-ion battery fires per year were reported in Massachusetts — less than half the number identified by investigators using the checklist over the past six months. The increase since last fall could be due to the growing number of consumer devices powered by these batteries, increased attention by local fire investigators, or other factors, said State Fire Marshal Jon Davine.

Lithium-ion battery fires were reported in 38 cities and towns. Nine of the fires involved devices such as battery-powered scooters, e-bikes, and hoverboards, making them the most commonly involved in fires, according to the data. Eight fires involved laptops and another eight involved cell phones, tablets, or similar devices. Power tools were involved in six fires. The device’s charging status could be determined in 41 of the 50 fires. The data shows 56% of these devices were not charging at the time of the incident.

In a press release Davine offered several safety tips for preventing lithium-ion battery fires including using only the original equipment manufacturer’s batteries and charging equipment and storing scooters and e-bikes outdoors if possible. He mentioned not overcharging batteries as well as having working smoke alarms in case a fire does erupt.

Davine said if there are changes to the battery or the device, including damage, an unusual odor, a change in color, too much heat, change in shape, leaking, smoking, or not keeping a charge, people should stop using it right away.

If and when it’s time to dispose of the battery, it should not be thrown away in the trash.  Lithium-ion batteries should be recycled. Locations for recycling the batteries can be found here.

Elizabeth Román edits daily news stories at NEPM as managing editor. She is working to expand the diversity of sources in our news coverage and is also exploring ways to create more Spanish-language news content.