Lithium-ion batteries have changed our modern life. Contained within devices as small as hearing aids and as large as electric vehicles, most of us are not more than an arm’s reach of a lithium-ion battery every hour of every day.
As a result, most fire losses have at least one lithium-ion battery in or near the area of origin. This poses several hurdles for investigators.
Safety is the major hurdle for any fire investigation where a lithium-ion battery is present. Recently, a public sector fire investigator in Colorado was processing a scene where residents reported a fire caused by a lithium-ion battery in a skateboard.
Upon arrival at the scene, the investigator used a thermal imaging camera to ensure the internal battery temperature was safe, before moving the device outside of the residence. When the investigator placed the device on the ground it exploded, showering the investigator with hot acid and metal.
While the investigator escaped without injury, the raw power of these batteries and their seemingly unpredictable nature represent major hurdles in modern fire investigation.
The story above illustrates the impact lithium-ion batteries can have on determining the cause of a fire. In this example, the investigators believed the energy in the battery was already dissipated because the internal temperature was ambient, and it had visible signs of fire damage.
At the present, there is no way of determining post-fire whether a lithium-ion battery is a potential cause of the fire or simply a fuel package. This is because when a lithium-ion battery cell fails and enters what is known as “thermal runaway” the resulting fire debris is indistinguishable from cells that have been damaged by a fire. Therefore, when a lithium-ion battery pack is in the area of origin, investigators are faced with a chicken or egg conundrum – did the battery failure cause the fire, or did the fire cause the battery to fail?
While fires involving mobility devices and cases in which there are few potential ignition sources are less problematic, lithium-ion battery pack failures can result in individual cells being ejected several feet from the rest of the battery pack. This will result in the appearance of multiple points of origin or create the investigatory nightmare of having to sift through mounds of fire debris to locate any missing cells.
Lastly, and most problematically for the insurance industry, is that most fire departments are not equipped to extinguish lithium-ion battery fires. Because lithium has an ignition point of 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the whole battery pack must be cooled below that temperature to put out the flames.
This means most local fire departments’ standard operating procedure is to drown the area with as much water for as long as possible. This damages premises and personal property from the sometimes truly massive amounts of water used. One such fire in Texas required more than 30,000 gallons of water over a four-hour period. That’s a tank 7 feet in height and 27 feet in diameter or two average swimming pools.
While lithium-ion battery technology is responsible for many positive changes to modern life, fire protection and investigation science are lagging slightly behind. Keeping all these factors in mind will assist in better understanding your next fire claim.
Nicholas W. Siewert is a member of Plunkett Cooney's Product Liability, Torts & Litigation and Construction Law practice groups. His experience includes handling matters involving premises liability, product liability and ...
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