Updated: Jul 17, 2022
Randy & Jerry are a couple of sun-kissed beach dudes passionate about affordable electric skateboards & on a mission to share their love of low-emission fun.
Their glossy website sells inspiringly-name e-skateboards for hundreds of US dollars that are promoted by beautiful people on Instagram & a former pro skater – a modern take on the decades-old deck.
But Randy & Jerry don’t actually exist. Like much in the online world, they’re a chimera to aggressively sell micromobility to Australians who are taking these lithium battery packed & powered products into their homes.
Not Randy or Jerry. Random e-skater via surfertoday.com
Take a popular form of transport & add batteries
Bikes, scooters, skateboards & unicycles with added electricity are becoming increasingly popular, & are a common sight in stores & on city streets. For ease, we’re going to refer to them as ‘light electric vehicles’ or LEVs.
The lithium batteries used in these products should be safe to use, charge & store in your home, in the same way our mobile phones & laptops are.
But, for a variety of reasons, LEVs are killing people & burning down homes on a near daily basis around the world.
An unknown incident involving multiple LEVs in New York, US
On 23rd June, a mother & her four children died in Buenos Aires after inhaling toxic gases produced when a charging e-skateboard in their apartment caught fire. Thirty one other residents, including her husband, were treated for inhalation.
12 days earlier, Canadian Shayne Charleson fell from a second storey window to his death after a charging e-bike battery in his room exploded, prompting Vancouver fire officials to release a warning about a ‘spike in deadly fires’ caused by LEVs.
On the 21st June, a London resident in a block near the infamous Grenfell Tower ‘feared he was going to die’ on the 12th floor when a charging e-bike caught fire.
This is just one of a uncounted number of LEV fires leading to a fully involved house fire in the UK, with one video capturing an unusual suck-in/suck-out of smoke through the front window of a house in Leytonstone earlier this year, as the batteries ignite one after the other in a process called thermal runaway (more on that later).
An ongoing series of severe LEV fires – primarily e-scooters - have made headlines in India for several months. We could count over 40 separate incidents since March, several involving multiple e-scooters in transporter trucks, stores & warehousing. Most notably, over 100 electric rickshaws & ‘two-wheelers’ created an inferno in a Delhi carpark on 8th June.
Australia is at the start of an LEV fire spike
22 year old father-to-be, Blake Whell, was asleep next to his heavily pregnant partner Tomeka Willis when the e-scooter battery he’d left to charge overnight ignited & exploded in their caravan.
Blake threw himself over Tomeka, & in the process suffered severe burns that later took his life at the Royal Brisbane Hospital. Tomeka, herself critically burned, gave birth to a baby boy via emergency caesarean.
It’s the first Australian death directly linked to a LEV lithium ion battery. And, in my opinion, it’s only sheer luck we haven’t seen more.
Well, sheer luck, working smoke alarms, & heroic efforts by emergency responders, like this save by the team at Fire & Rescue NSW who entered a smoke-filled home to rescue three young people from a house fire, that was started by an e-bike fire on the 26th June in Lidcombe, NSW.
Firecrackers & a shower of sparks in Bacchus Marsh
One e-scooter fire in a residential garage in the Victorian town of Bacchus Marsh is interesting, two in a month indicates a problem.
A social media-focused homeowner intent on creating a good video to show his mates, captured his e-scooter igniting in his garage in early May. While we recommend only using your phone to call triple-0, before evacuating & not re-entering the building, the footage presents a great learning opportunity.
It came to us from the Bacchus Marsh Fire Brigade who contacted our project after attending a CFA webinar we presented (we'll revisit this first incident later).
Roll on a few weeks, & I received another email from the Bacchus Marsh Second Lieutenant with the words ‘It happened again!’.
This time - only 20 days after the first - it was an e-skateboard, sold to a Marsh local by the phoney e-dudes Randy & Jerry, which had ignited in the owner’s lounge room. He threw it outside where it ‘shot battery cells all over the driveway’.
Thanks again to Bacchus Marsh for the images. Note the cylindrical cells lying on the ground that were blasted through the battery pack casing.
Here's the thing; I strongly believe the Bacchus Marsh firies experience is a forecast of what’s facing Australian first responders as LEV adoption accelerates.
How often are LEV battery fires occurring?
This is the challenge - the real number of LEV battery incidents is still a little hidden from us.
Nationally, emergency responders are being paged to them, but this risk is emerging & fast moving, so some are not aware they’ve dealt with a lithium battery fire.
Unless it’s recognised & reported as such, it’s difficult for emergency agencies & our project to track. Additionally, any national tracking of LEV fire incidents sits outside the scope of our current funding.
Battery packs & fires – the basics
Knowing how a battery pack is constructed, & how it can disintegrate into a fireball, really helps emergency responders manage EV incidents.
Battery pack construction: Most LEVs have a small lithium ion battery pack of cylindrical battery cells, typically around 2-3 kWh. In all types of electric vehicles, think of kWh like your petrol tank – it’s how much ‘fuel’ is available for momentum.
The cells look similar to typical AA batteries, but bigger. These are connected into a group & protected in a metal or hard plastic case.
In many LEVs, the battery pack can be removed from the frame & charged while sitting on the kitchen bench.
Thermal runaway: All lithium ion battery fires start with what’s called thermal runaway. But it’s not a fire, it’s an unstable chemical reaction. We've written an explainer here.
In short, when a battery cell is abused it can short circuit. This means the positive (anode) & negative (cathode) touch, causing a breakdown of the cell structure, which produces a lot of heat, very quickly.
The heat inside the cell builds up until the pressure becomes too much & the cells pops, venting out heavy metals & gases under pressure. This appears as a dark, then lighter, cloud of vapour.
This vapour cloud contains a mix of toxic & flammable gases, primarily hydrogens. Many of these gases can cause respiratory distress &/or asphyxiation.
Once one cell has started to heat up & release gases, others in the pack will follow, in a kind of domino effect.
This is thermal runaway. Once it starts, it’s very difficult for emergency responders to stop it.
The early warning signs of thermal runaway
All of this is occurring in the battery pack, which is difficult for us to see.
But our experience with passenger EVs shows there are a few early warning signs that things with LEVs are about to get hot.
Thermal runaway early warning signs for electric vehicles (all types)
You may hear: bubbling, popping, hissing sounds of the battery cells reacting to heat, bursting & venting gases under pressure.
You may smell: what’s described as a ‘sickly sweet’ smell, something the US based ESA call ‘cherry bubblegum’. We obviously do not recommend you sniff the stuff though, even in the name of scientific endeavour.
You may see: what we call off-gassing; the gases venting from the cells & forming large vapour clouds. Early testing by our project mentor Professor Paul Christensen indicate even a very small lithium ion battery of 1 kWh can produce a whopping 6000 litres of toxic vapour clouds.
The problem is, by the time you see, hear or smell these signs it’s pretty much too late when dealing with LEVs. Best practice from responders I've spoken with is to get the hell out of the way & try to protect exposures as best you can.
Let's go back to Bacchus
Which brings us back to Bacchus Marsh's original incident & that video we mentioned.
Watch: Headphones, turn volume up & please note:
00.05 flares of directional flame as a cell bursts & vents flammable gases
00.08 & 00.09 more flares - thermal runaway in full swing
00.20 a loud pop, a 'whooshing' noise & light from yet another flare of flame
00.32 popping & sparks - possible reaction with water / heated cell debris becoming projectile
The owner is able to suppress flames, & incidentally cool the small battery pack, relatively quickly, however the time taken can vary depending on battery state of charge & other factors.
The most important takeaway here, as this video clearly shows, there is significant risk of fire spread from LEV battery fires inside buildings.
(A quick thank you to the owner for supplying this video to Bacchus Marsh fire brigade, we're sure it was an upsetting experience & we hope everyone is OK.)
Vapour cloud explosion (yes, it can get worse)
The large vapour cloud that forms during thermal runaway is toxic & flammable. And, it can develop very quickly.
In most cases, it ignites, creating that jet like flame – the ignited gases escaping under pressure from the battery cells.
But we’re increasingly seeing vapour cloud explosion, particularly with LEVs in enclosed spaces. As evidenced in this worrying video from 2018 in Shanghai, China.
It's vital that emergency responders understand this. We’re no longer smoke diving in BA, we’re in the middle of a possible vapour cloud explosion.
Here we go again - delayed or secondary ignition
As with passenger EVs, it is possible for a LEV battery to catch fire two, three or more times.
Any cells not destroyed by fire are still energised; we refer to this as stranded energy. There’s currently no way to de-energise these cells.
Where do you even start? E-bikes & e-scooters imported & stacked floor to ceiling in a private home, Sydney, May 2022. Image via Daniel Fish, FRNSW
In some cases, these cells may go into thermal runaway hours after the initial fire. Or for the cell to be damaged enough for it to slowly heat up, but only catch fire later on.
For these reasons, any fire damaged LEV should be separated & stored away from others post-incident.
What’s causing LEV battery fires?
There are a range of reasons, but largely it boils down to this; substandard quality lithium ion battery cells supplied to LEV manufacturers rushing products out to a red hot market (no pun intended).
Poor/faulty battery quality: The Indian Fire Explosives & Environment Agency found LEVs involved in fires typically used ‘lower-grade materials to cut costs’. Sneakily, high grade batteries were submitted for the testing required to enable selling into the market.
Higher quality batteries are used by reputable Australian suppliers, reducing risk significantly. However, the LEVs bought online with a click of the PayPal button aren’t regulated (yet).
Poor battery management: Passenger EVs contain a sophisticated battery management system (BMS) with active & passive thermal controls. LEVs don’t, as there’s simply no space for one, & rely on passive air cooling.
Again turning to India, a summer heatwave has no doubt exacerbated that issue. Battery cells operate at average temperatures of around 30 degrees, with a run of >40 degree days across the country.
Overcharged: In the Brisbane case, the couple has bought a second-hand e-scooter that didn’t come with the manufacturer supplied cable. An incorrectly rated cable was used, that overcharged the battery, leading to thermal runaway.
Easy damage: By their very nature, LEVs are kicked up & down curbs, in & out of potholes. Battery abuse leading to thermal runaway is simply more common.
Emergency response guidance for LEVs
Prior to sale, passenger electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla, Nissan & Hyundai, develop an ISO 17840 standard emergency response guide. Great, even though some can be vague on EV battery fire management, often saying ‘just use a lot of water’.
But...there’s no such thing as emergency response guides for LEVs.
To check this, we contacted four of the leading electric bike suppliers in Australia to see what they could tell us.
We hit a polite brick wall with three, but Brisbane-based e-bike manufacturer Cleverly were happy to talk through their self-imposed high standards around battery quality & keen to continue the conversation to enhance emergency responder safety.
So, a good response from (some of the) reputable companies with a social conscience.
Unsurprisingly, the email & calls we made to Randy & Jerry’s company remains unanswered.
(But we did find a post on their website titled 'A safety reminder' that links visitors to a CNBC video about EV battery fires from January 2022 that, ironically, I was interviewed for.)
Emergency response best practice
In all cases we researched while writing this article, by the time responders arrive on scene it’s either a) all over or b) a fully involved structure fire.
But some best practice information is emerging from fire departments globally that can prepare Australian responders, & we'll update this as more is available:
If a single LEV is involved:
Wear BA & full PPC (chemical resistant gloves under fire gloves should be considered)
Remember the battery is overheating leading to thermal runaway, so cooling & suppression is needed with lots of water
If you can, let the battery pack burn hot & fast to remove stranded energy & minimize risk
Be aware battery cells may still have charge post-fire & still pose a small fire &/or electrocution risk
Move the product to an open space away from flammable items
If multiple LEVs are involved:
Wear BA & full PPC (chemical resistant gloves under fire gloves should be considered)
If possible, separate unburnt LEVs from the area to prevent fire spread
Establish water supply early for a potentially extended cooling/suppression process; hours or possibly days depending on number
Submersion in water may be an option
Keep partially burnt LEVs separate from each other to avoid secondary ignition
Case study - Voi e-scooter warehouse fire
As an interesting case study (& very cool video), on New Year’s Day 2022 an e-scooter battery went into thermal runaway at the Voi warehouse in Bristol, UK.
The cause is listed as overcharging & 'tangled extension cords' overheating (seriously?), which led to over 200 LEVs being fully or partially destroyed.
Local Councillor Brenda Massey, who is also the head of Bristol's Fire Authority, described the 'considerable difficulty' firefighters had extinguishing the blaze.
“It appears that the only way to put out a fire of this nature is to completely submerge the scooter in water,” said Massey.
Watch: Bristol Fire & Rescue submerged multiple e-scooters in collar tanks, protecting the base by placing them on wooden pallets. However, as lithium batteries go into thermal runaway, they also produce oxygen:
00.02 flames appearing under water surface
00:14 a cell bursts, releasing vapour & flame
High quality LEVs are safe to charge & ride
Buying a LEV? Great, here’s our take on keeping yourself safe. Also see the great resources at the end of this post.
Buy from the quality suppliers who are happy to answer a few questions about battery quality, the standards they adhere to. Don’t just rely on washed-up skateboard pros & flashy Insta models to rose-tint your purchase (pow, take that Randy & Jerry).
Until Australian standards catch up, look for UL 2849, a US fire safety standard & the CE EN15194, European standard for power output (thanks Cleverly for pointing us to that one).
Follow the manufacturers instructions & use their charging cable. It might cost you a few extra bucks, but it’s made for the LEV.
Charge it outside, away from anything flammable. Don’t even think about the kitchen bench, under your pillow or in your underwear drawer.
Ensure you have a working smoke alarm in the area you're charging your LEV
If you hear, smell or see anything strange, unplug it if safe to do so & call 000. Firies would rather be called for a false alarm than a house fire.
And if you do happen to experience a LEV battery fire & manage to (safely) capture it for posterity, we’d love a copy to share with the emergency community.
Stay alert, not alarmed
Our job is to research electric vehicle battery fires & emergency responder safety.
Articles such as this must be considered in the context of the millions of LEVs in operation every day around the world. We’re not advocating a ‘ban them all’ approach, we’re aiming for a ‘this is an emerging issue for the emergency response community - here’s what we know now & here's what we need to learn’.
LEVs & their associated charging infrastructure are here, with trials of e-scooters in most capital cities. (As a point of interest, the City of Melbourne’s agreement with Lime, a San Francisco-based company who’ve peppered city streets with e-scooters, doesn’t mention fire safety once. This is despite Lime’s products being involved in a 2018 recall & at least two multi-e-scooter thermal events.)
If emergency responders are aware of LEVs & the fire risks, we start getting ahead of the high voltage game.
EV FireSafe will remain focused on passenger electric vehicles. However, as our work progresses through research & testing, we’ll always update our online knowledge hub (fancy name for this website) with LEV information as it develops.
As always, if you have questions or comments, please get in touch.
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