May 2024 Fire Report: Fighting Lithium-ion Battery Fires on the Frontlines

When you think of lithium-ion battery fires, you might think of data centers and large EV batteries, but the waste and recycling industry has been fighting fires caused by personal electronics and personal storage equipment since 2015.  In this month’s column, I not only highlight the fire data from April but also share some best practices from the National Waste & Recycling Association’s (NWRA) Safety Symposium, as well as my WasteExpo panel experts and my personal experience at Fire Rover.

Ryan Fogelman, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships

May 21, 2024

8 Min Read
Ryan Fogelman

When you think of lithium-ion battery fires, you might think of data centers and large EV batteries, but the waste and recycling industry has been fighting fires caused by personal electronics and personal storage equipment since 2015.  In this month’s column, I not only highlight the fire data from April but also share some best practices from the National Waste & Recycling Association’s (NWRA) Safety Symposium, as well as my WasteExpo panel experts and my personal experience at Fire Rover. 

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April 2024 Fire Data

In the month of April, we experienced 34 fires, 19 of which occurred in waste, paper and plastic operations, eight occurred in scrap operations, five occurred at organics operations, one occurred in an e-scrap operation and one occurred at a rubber recycling facility. Two of these events were confirmed as catastrophic, but that number is highly conservative based on the public reporting without long-term visibility of the actual damage stemming from these incidents. At Fire Rover, we successfully responded to more than 150 fire incidents at our clients’ facilities. 

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After a slow start, we are building momentum going into the “summertime spike” we typically experience this time of year. When we look at the first four months of the year, we have incurred 115 fires at our waste and recycling operations. This means we are trending in line with 2021 and 2018. 2021 turned out to be in our favor by the end of the year by just barely edging out 2018, which was the first year the industry was hit by the lithium-ion battery spike. All we can do is keep an eye on the future and hope that this year the summertime spike is more muted. 

However, it is important to remain diligent and know the summertime spike in fires is not caused by just lithium-ion batteries in the waste stream but by the heat, dryness and increases in other fire-causing hazards like fireworks, firework embers, hot loads, hot barbecues, propane tanks, pool chemicals and more. 

Redundancy Is Key                                                                             

In an opportune moment before WasteExpo, I was talking to a couple of the panelists who joined me on the “Dealing with Lithium-ion Battery Fires on the Frontlines” panel. The first panelist was David DeVito from ReSource Waste Services. A veteran of the industry, DeVito has been on the frontlines fighting fires for decades. He also successfully deployed a fully trained fire brigade in response to a massive fire at his 100-acre construction and demolition operation in 2015. 

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The second panelist was Bob Shallenberger with Interco, one of the largest battery recyclers in the U.S., who just made an extremely large investment into a 300,000-square-foot processing facility located in the Midwest. 

We met ahead of our Monday afternoon session, with the Vegas Sphere as our backdrop, to briefly discuss fires within the industry. Check out the video below of our discussion.

Here are some key takeaways from our conversation:

  • Do not just dig into a pile to put out a fire. If you asked anyone in the waste and recycling industry how to fight a fire, most would say to use the loader to pull the fire out of a pile. This is true, but ONLY when the fire is on the surface or the fringes of the pile. The proper way to dig for a deep-seated fire is to pre-wet, and once properly soaked, pull away a layer. In one of DeVito’s comments during our conversation, he discussed how his team of operators was directed onsite by the fire chief to pull the piles apart, but when I asked him how much water was already applied, he said a ton.  The worst fire event we at Fire Rover have been a part of is when the loader dug into a pile and got hit with an unexpected “accelerant” that quickly turned into a major fire event once the accelerant was unleashed. 

  • Protect the risk hazard. Shallenberger mentioned the 300,000-square-foot operation that his company recently completed in Missouri. When recycling batteries, there is a clear and inherent risk of fire within daily operations. While a system like the Fire Rover that has more than 100 detection zones, 57 nozzles and is monitored 24/7/365 might be overkill for some occupancies, for those dealing with lines of business with inherent risk of fire in their daily operations, it becomes imperative.

  • Insurance companies do give discounts on premiums for installing Fire Rover technologies. There have been some folks in the industry who claim premium discounts are hard to attain with the risk profile our industry is experiencing. This is simply not the case. In the video below, [MS1] Shawn Mandel from Waste Connections shares his experience getting favorable terms using risk mitigation from installing our early detection systems across the company’s portfolio of operations.

The reality is newer technology has always faced obstacles when integrated into the mainstream nomenclature, but once it’s proven to work, it ultimately gets adopted. Investing in the right technologies is key when working with insurers, and our solution is proving itself on a daily basis. The more success we have, the easier it will be to prove the value to your insurance partners. 

  • The summertime spike in fires is not just caused by batteries. Everyone blames lithium-ion batteries for every fire out there. However, only about half of fires are caused by batteries, while the other half is caused by traditional hazards like heat and dryness.

  • UL Solutions’ newest public campaign is suggesting you have one minute to react when dealing with lithium-ion battery fires. One minute is not a lot of time, but it is reality as these fires burn hot and fast. Additionally, no one should be fighting lithium-ion battery fires from a close distance due to potential projectiles and toxic fumes.

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This is why I personally think lithium-ion battery handheld fire extinguishers should not be sold or used. When you can, fight the fire from a distance. Take a look at the below video from NWRA’s 2024 Safety Symposium at WasteExpo where Victor Mancilla, Las Vegas Fire & Rescue’s public education specialist, walks all the participants through fire extinguisher training.

Being properly protected and maintaining a safe distance is a must when fighting any fire event with projectiles and toxic off-gasses emitted from the hazard.

  • Have a detailed pre-incident plan, and train with the local fire department. This is a key point DeVito always pushes, but the better you know your fire department’s capabilities, the better prepared you will be for a fire event should one occur. Some departments have the proper suppressants and equipment to fight waste and recycling fires, but a significant amount do not. When the fire department is ill-equipped, it becomes the responsibility of the operator to ensure they can properly train and equip their staff to be part of the response. 

  • Catch fires when they are small. Our Fire Rover solutions look at every piece of hay in a haystack to find the needle, because anyone in the fire sector will tell you the faster you catch a fire, the easier it is to neutralize the threat. 

But what’s the big takeaway? You might have guessed it: Redundancy is key!

Fire protection is about layers of protection. If one layer breaks, the next layer is there to catch the fire and so forth. Some folks like to use the analogy of Swiss cheese. If all the holes align, then you can have a major fire event. Each piece of cheese is a layer of protection; for example, a sprinkler system, active monitoring, thermal protection, optical flame detecting, operational best practices, education of the public, the list goes on. The more layers you have in place, the better chance you have at surviving or preventing a potential catastrophic fire in your waste and recycling operation. 

Conclusion

Kudos to the good folks at Informa and NWRA for putting on such an amazing WasteExpo 2024. If you happened to miss the “Dealing with Lithium-ion Battery Fires on the Frontlines” panel where DeVito, Shallenberger and I were joined by Dr. George Thompson from Chemical Compliance Systems, you can watch the full session below.

If you have any questions or insight, please feel free to reach out to any of us. We can help answer any questions you may have and point you in the right direction for effective solutions. 

Ryan Fogelman, JD/MBA, is vice president of strategic partnerships for Fire Rover. He is focused on bringing innovative safety solutions to market, and two of his solutions have won the distinguished Edison Innovation Award for Industrial Safety and Consumer Products. He has been compiling and publishing the “Reported Waste & Recycling Facility Fires In The US/CAN” since February 2016 and the “Waste & Recycling Facility Fires Annual Report.” Fogelman regularly speaks on the topic of the scope of fire problems facing the waste and recycling industries, early detection solutions, proper fire planning and early-stage fire risk mitigation. Additionally, Fogelman is on the National Fire Protection Association’s Technical Committee for Hazard Materials. (Connect with Ryan on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/ryanjayfogelman or email at [email protected])

About the Author(s)

Ryan Fogelman

Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, Fire Rover

Ryan Fogelman, JD/MBA, is vice president of strategic partnerships for Fire Rover. Fogelman is focused on bringing innovative safety solutions to market, and two of his solutions have won the distinguished Edison Innovation Award for Industrial Safety and Consumer Products. He has been compiling and publishing the “The Reported Waste & Recycling Facility Fire In The US/CAN” since February 2016, the “Waste & Recycling Facility Fire Annual Report” and speaks regularly on the topic of the scope of fire problems facing the waste and recycling industries, detection solutions, proper fire planning and early stage fire risk mitigation.

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