FDNY Backing Council Bills to Address Deadly Fires from Lithium Ion Batteries

Acting Chief of Fire Prevention at FDNY Thomas Currao. Photo: Credit John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit
Acting Chief of Fire Prevention at FDNY Thomas Currao. Photo: Credit John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit

The Fire Department is backing a package of bills aimed at addressing the rise of deadly infernos attributed to faulty lithium-ion batteries that are often used by delivery workers on e-bikes — but advocates say the reforms don’t go far enough, and, in fact, only reveal how poorly the city protects New Yorkers whose livelihoods depend on the two-wheeled devices.

On Monday, during a several-times-deferred hearing on solving the problem of faulty batteries catching fire, the FDNY said it supports reforms requiring basic safety information be more widely disseminated and easily accessible, and banning the sale of both second-use batteries or ones that are not nationally recognized by an approved organization, such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL).

So far this year, the FDNY says 191 fires, 140 injuries, and six fatalities are attributed to lithium ion batteries — far more than the 13 injuries as a result of such fires in 2019, and the 79 in 2021. And just last week, 38 people were injured during a fire in a Manhattan high-rise after an e-bike ignited, requiring a dramatic rescue through a window on the 20th floor.

“The use of powered mobility devices multiplied dramatically during the pandemic. They have become ubiquitous among delivery workers, fueling around the clock convenience the New Yorkers have come to rely upon,” FDNY’s Acting Chief of Fire Prevention Thomas Currao said during the hearing at City Hall. “Our challenge is to strike the appropriate balance of ensuring public safety while not unnecessarily disrupting the livelihood and enjoyment of users.”

Currao said the FDNY supports four of the five bills proposed by members of the Council, including:

  • Intro. 656, which requires the fire department to develop an informational campaign to educate the public on fire risks posed by powered mobility devices
  • Intro. 663, which would prohibit the sale of batteries for mobility devices are not listed by a nationally recognized testing laboratory or approved organization, such as Underwriters Laboratory
  • Intro. 749, which require the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection and the FDNY to provide information on safety measures and also require food service establishments to provide delivery workers with information
  • Intro. 752 would prohibit the sale and assembly of second-use lithium ion batteries

But Currao says the department has “concerns” about Intro. 722, which would require the FDNY to publish an annual report on all fires caused by powered mobility devices, including details like the geographic location and circumstances of each fire, and building type at which it occurred.

“We are able to comply with the aim of this bill by reporting on powered mobility devices. However, we do have concerns about the best use of resources and what it might take to gather and produce all of the elements in this report,” he said.

Advocates charge that not only are some of the reforms a “no-brainer,” but they should have been done years ago — or at least simultaneously with when Albany finally legalized e-bikes back in 2019.

Apparently, FDNY honchos haven’t read Streetsblog’s seminal “Field Guide to Micro Mobility,” which identifies and explains the nuanced differences between pedal-assist electric bikes, electric scooters, mopeds (illegal and legal), one-wheelers, and so on — a point of confusion for some members of New York’s Finest.

“The FDNY clearly does not understand the problem. They do not even understand the industry. The idea that we’re spending, how many hours here, and everyone keeps referring to e-bikes shows the problem,” said Hildalyn Colón Hernández, director of Policy and Strategic Partnerships of Los Deliveristas/Workers Justice Project, after the two-hour hearing. “There are lithium ion batteries across the board. We are on the reactive approach, not proactive.”

And where the advocates — and the workers themselves — diverge further from the city is in their opposition to the proposed slate of bills.

Hernández says Los Deliveristas Unidos does not support legislation banning the sale or assembly of second-use lithium-ion batteries, nor does it support prohibiting the sale of batteries that are not nationally recognized, which can often cost more than $1,000.

“This bill would penalize thousands of Deliveristas who used that extra cash to afford new equipment or sustain their families,” said Hernández.

Not only that, the FDNY could not provide a more specific  breakdown of the fires caused by lithium ion batteries, including those involving e-bikes compared to the other e-mobility devices listed in Streetsblog’s guide. Not understanding the differences, and being unable to provide basic facts is contributing to yet another backlash against e-bike riders, many of whom are the low-income immigrant men who weather rain, sleet, and snow to deliver New Yorkers’ food.

“Couldn’t even tell you how many e-bikes generated the fires. Creating hysteria where there is none,” said Hernández.

And even something as simple as an outright ban on charging such batteries inside buildings at all remains a point of contention. The FDNY was cautious to offer a definitive answer to that question from pols during the hearing, saying it’s a “complicated issue.”

But if other countries across Europe, like Spain, can figure it out, so can the richest city in the world, said Hernández.

“I asked the (city) three years ago, ‘Can I charge inside,’ and they still have not given me an answer. Europe figured it out. Spain has a clear directive, ‘you cannot charge inside.’ They did it in a whole country. It’s just being proactive,” she said.

Other pols similarly pressed members of the FDNY on how they’re approaching the problem, urging them to look abroad, or to other cities and states across the country for solutions.

“Have you looked outside of our jurisdiction? (Other countries) have been using battery charged vehicles in large numbers before we were, so are we looking outside of our own jurisdiction to find ways to keep people safe. Are there charging stations available? Are we doing everything we can to keep people safe?” said Council Member Joann Ariola, a Republican who represents parts of southern Queens and the Rockaway Peninsula, and who has racked up 48 violations on her SUV since 2017, including a whopping 27 for speeding in school zones and two for blowing through red lights.

Last month, after backlash, the city backed down from a contentious policy proposal that sought to bar e-bikes anywhere on New York City Housing Authority property. And the hearing comes on the heels of a new initiative, in partnership with Sen. Chuck Schumer, the city, and Los Deliveristas Unidos, to create new charging stations for delivery workers out of retrofitted newsstands.