The Scooter Battery Peril Worries the Fire Department
Good morning. It’s Thursday. We’ll look at batteries that power e-bikes and scooters — and the risks that fire officials say they pose. We’ll also look at a police official who was promoted despite past disciplinary charges.
Credit…Fire Department of New York, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Almost four times a week since January — nearly every other day — firefighters in New York City have faced a new and troubling reality: a blaze caused by a lithium-ion battery.
The Fire Department says that battery fires have killed six people and injured 140 so far this year. There were 87 more lithium-ion battery fires in New York City in the first 11 months of 2022 than in all of last year.
Lithium-ion batteries power everything from smartphones and laptops to power tools, but fire safety experts have focused on the batteries for e-bikes, scooters and hoverboards as particularly dangerous. The Fire Department now considers lithium-ion batteries such a problem that it inserted a section headed “e-bike safety” at the beginning of the annual fire safety notice that building managers and landlords are supposed to distribute to tenants.
“Lithium-ion batteries and chargers present serious fire safety hazards,” it says flatly, adding that e-bikes and other “mobility devices” should not be charged in apartments because most apartments do not have sprinklers, and household furnishings are highly combustible. Fire safety experts warn that the consequences can be catastrophic. Consider:
At least five e-bikes or scooters were being charged in an apartment in an East Side high-rise where a fire broke out last month. Firefighters dangling on ropes rescued a woman from the 20th floor.
A battery fire in an apartment in a public housing complex in Harlem killed a 5-year-old girl and a 36-year-old woman in August. The girl’s father was badly burned.
That same month, a 27-year-old man from Venezuela who had been working double shifts delivering food for delis in the Bronx died when the e-bike he was charging in his apartment caught fire.
Experts say the problems often begin with aging, damaged or malfunctioning batteries and charging devices — or with batteries in chargers they were not designed for. The Fire Department warns that unapproved batteries can overcharge, overheat and catch fire. It advises making sure an e-bike or scooter carries a UL, ETL or CSA symbol, an indication that it meets safety standards.
Dealing with lithium-ion batteries and chargers presents difficult choices for regulators and lawmakers. Thomas Currao, the Fire Department’s acting chief of fire prevention, told a City Council hearing on Nov. 14 that “our challenge is to strike the appropriate balance of ensuring public safety while not unnecessarily disrupting the livelihood and enjoyment of users.”
The city proposed and then effectively tabled a ban on electronic bicycles and scooters from buildings in public housing complexes several months ago. A spokeswoman for the New York City Housing Authority said the agency was “still working on determining next steps for this proposed new rule.”
One bill introduced in the City Council would ban sales of refurbished lithium-ion batteries, which tend to be cheaper. “We don’t want fires,” said Gale Brewer, a Council member from Manhattan who introduced two of the bills, “but the 65,000 delivery people have to be able to afford what is safe. It’s a dilemma.”
Charging stations are a possibility. Mayor Eric Adams and Senator Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, announced a $1 million federal grant to turn three vacant newsstands into places where deliverers could stop to recharge the batteries in their e-bikes.
Only one in 10 million lithium-ion batteries fails, according to the nonprofit Fire Protection Research Foundation. But Currao said lithium-ion battery fires “present challenges to firefighters that are different from other types of fires,” including the possibility of a thermal runaway.
“This occurs when an excess of heat is generated within the battery, resulting in an uncontrollable, self-heating status that exceeds the rate at which the heat can be safely dissipated,” he said at the City Council hearing. “This causes a domino effect within the cells of the battery and potentially creates an explosive state.”
The danger can continue after the fire is out, he cautioned. “The battery is still essentially a box of chemicals,” Currao said, “and it’s not unusual for it to reignite,” sometimes hours or even days later.
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In effect until Dec. 8 (Immaculate Conception)
The latest New York news
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N.Y.U. engineering: New York University is investing $1 billion in its flagship engineering school, in a bid to improve its ranking among competitors and raise New York City’s profile in the technology sector.
Covid funds fraud: Seventeen government employees, including a New York City correction official and eight Police Department employees, were charged in schemes to defraud Covid relief programs intended to help struggling businesses.
Trump Organization trial: The criminal tax fraud trial of Donald Trump’s family business could come down to three words: “in behalf of.”
Fear and hope on city streets: Mayor Eric Adams intends to remove people with severe, untreated mental illness from the streets. That will mean involuntary hospitalization of people deemed unable to care for themselves.
A police promotion despite past disciplinary charges
The new No. 3 official in the New York City Police Department was named to the agency’s highest unformed rank despite past disciplinary charges and drawn-out litigation dating to 2016.
The official, Jeffrey Maddrey, will be the acting chief of department, according to a law enforcement official and an internal memo. He replaces Kenneth Corey, who retired on Tuesday.
In 31 years with the Police Department, Chief Maddrey rose through the ranks, most recently heading the Patrol Services Bureau — the Police Department’s largest and the one that most directly affects the lives of New Yorkers, with responsibility for eight borough commands that include all 77 police precincts in the city. When he was appointed to that post only five months ago, Commissioner Keechant Sewell described him as “one of the best-known leaders in the N.Y.P.D.” and someone who “has managed to blend his talents as an effective crime fighter with his deep passion for community policing.”
My colleague Chelsia Rose Marcius writes that his latest promotion raises questions over the perception of a Police Department that has struggled to regain trust following clashes with protesters after the death of George Floyd in 2020.
Maddrey is the subject of a civil case that arose from harassment allegations filed in 2016 by a former subordinate, according to records in Manhattan Supreme Court. He has denied the allegations, and although he faced internal discipline, a federal lawsuit against him was dismissed in 2019. He also was criticized last year for ordering the release of a retired police officer accused of using his gun to menace children.
That part of his record probably had little bearing on the decision to name him acting chief of department, said Keith Taylor, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former detective sergeant. Other factors, including how effectively leaders can traverse the politically charged landscape of city law enforcement, carry weight, he said.
“The issue of scandals, and ongoing legal and civil challenges, those are just a matter of doing business. It’s the process of the world they live in,” Taylor said.
It was hot out when I walked into Gray’s Papaya on Broadway at 72nd Street to get a papaya drink.
I got in line behind a thickset man with thinning hair and a scruffy beard. He was taking his time deciding which condiments to add to his hot dog, so I walked ahead of him to order my drink.
“Get back in line, lady!” he said.
“Sorry,” I replied, hurrying back to my original spot.
After getting my drink and starting to leave, I walked past the same man. He was leaning against a side counter, munching on his hot dog.
“You shouldn’t drink that stuff,” he said, pointing to my drink. “It’s poison!”
“Papaya?” I said. “It’s supposed to be healthy.”
“You think so?” he said. “My brother-in-law was in from L.A. and drank that stuff. He got real sick for three days.”
“What about that hot dog you’re eating?” I asked. “It’s not so healthy either.”
“Who cares?” he said. “I like how it tastes!”
— Suzanne Cogan
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].