Obsolete manufacturing standards are suspected in most of the 65 scooter and e-bike battery fires that have killed three New Yorkers this year — a death toll that includes a 9-year-old Queens boy who in his last words pleaded for his mother to help.
Fire Department investigators and battery experts say scooter users buy the exploding batteries online or in area scooter stores as supplements or replacements for the batteries installed at the factory by scooter makers.
Electric scooter use has boomed as the restaurant delivery business grew during the pandemic.
“People use these bikes very often and like to have a spare battery to plug in when they charge the other one,” said FDNY Chief Fire Marshal Daniel Flynn.
“A lot of people are using them for their livelihood and need to keep moving, so they purchase the extra batteries.”
Batteries installed in scooters at the factory appear to be safe, and adhere to industry standards, Flynn and other safety experts say.
Consumers put their lives in jeopardy if they buy e-bikes or scooter batteries without certification by UL — formerly known as Underwriters Laboratories — or other organizations that certify equipment for product safety, said Ibrahim Jilani, director of consumer technology for UL, the 127-year-old safety organization.
“There are many brands out there, whether e-bike, e-scooter or light electric vehicles that are not UL certified,” Jilani said. “It’s a risk and it’s an unnecessary risk.”
Scooter battery fires are a growing problem in New York.
The 65 battery fires that have injured 57 people and killed three in New York so far this year are a massive jump from previous years.
In all of 2020, the FDNY responded to 44 scooter battery fires that hurt 23 people. In 2019, the department battled 28 scooter battery fires that hurt 16 people.
In the most recent fatal fire on Sept. 1, a charging moped battery killed 9-year-old Remi Fernandez of Queens as his desperate parents struggled in vain to rescue him from their burning basement home.
The blaze broke out at 2 a.m. as the lithium-ion battery charged in the Ozone Park apartment. A tenant in the building heard an explosion. Remi’s mom told a neighbor she heard her son cry out: “Mom, help me.”
Smoke and heat kept Remi’s parents and neighbors from rescuing him, and his mom expressed her devastation at her child’s funeral 10 days later. “My little boy,” she cried as family embraced her.
The other two deadly battery fires this year occurred in the Bronx — on May 5, when a blaze ripped through a six-story building in Concourse Village and killed 91-year-old Luz Santos, and Jan. 12, when a scooter battery sparked flames that tore through an apartment in the Sotomayor Houses on Watson Ave. in Soundview and fatally injured Christopher Valentine, 42.
Nationwide, charging lithium-ion batteries for devices like scooters and E-bikes sparked 330 fires in the U.S. from 2015 to 2018, causing more than $9 million in property damage, says a Consumer Product Safety Commission study released in 2020.
The commission’s staff believes scooter batteries built to UL standards “provide a significant level of safety to the user,” said agency spokeswoman Karla Crosswhite-Chigbue.
The standards are formally known as UL2272 certification for e-scooters. UL says it also approves e-bike systems with what’s called a UL2849 certification. Light electric vehicle battery packs for either micromobility system would need to comply to requirements of UL2271.
Manufacturing flaws may not be the only cause of battery fires, said Fire Marshal Flynn. Some batteries, he said, may have been damaged as their owners zip up and down the city streets.
“If a battery is damaged and the owner continues to use it, it could deteriorate,” he said. “If a battery is damaged it needs to be replaced or it won’t continue to be functional.”
Flynn recommends that scooter owners never leave a battery charging unattended and that batteries should be charged outdoors.
“People tend to charge the batteries in the doorway of their homes, and that causes a substantial safety hazard,” Flynn said.
The FDNY is working with federal consumer safety watchdogs to improve the batteries’ safety.
“We want to find out how we can better communicate and document these incidents, and transport the evidence to them so they can get accurate information on the batteries,” said Flynn. “We gather as much information as we can and refer it to them.”
With Ellen Moynihan, Kerry Burke and Brittany Kriegstein