‘It scares the daylights out of me:’ Florida’s top firefighter fears more lithium-ion battery fires

News 6 investigation reveals no state regulations on safe battery storage

ORLANDO, Fla. – They power everything – from cell phones and scooters to electric cars – but a News 6 investigation reveals there are no state regulations for safely storing lithium-ion batteries.

The batteries have a history of overheating while charging and catching fire.

In January, investigators blamed a lithium-ion battery for catching fire inside a garbage truck in Seminole County, destroying the vehicle.

In July, a man died after a Tesla crashed on SR-417 and caught fire.

In New York, four people were killed when an e-bike repair shop erupted in flames in February.

Investigators determined all of these fires were caused by lithium-ion batteries.

No rules and regulations

“It scares the daylights out of me,” JoAnne Rice said.

Rice is the director of the Florida State Fire Marshal’s Office.

“It is a fire that burns hotter and faster than any fire we’ve ever seen, and we don’t have the tools,” Rice said. “This is such a new thing that we’re going be dealing with for years to come, and so, it really terrifies me that we’re going to lose firefighters, we’re going to lose our citizens to these types of fires over and over again.”

Rice spoke to News 6 as the fire college hosted a Lithium-Ion Battery Symposium.

Firefighters from all over the country, and some from Brazil, came to learn about the latest techniques in extinguishing these fires.

Firefighters learned new techniques to put out fires caused by lithium-ion batteries at Florida State Fire College in Ocala. (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Rice said preventing these fires is just as important as fighting them, but she admits there are no state regulations when it comes to safely storing lithium-ion batteries.

“We have codes and standards in place, and most of these codes run several years behind,” she said.

New codes are recommended by a group of fire professionals with the International Code Council.

News 6 has uncovered new fire code recommendations, specifically for safe lithium-ion battery storage, are set to be approved later this year.

There are many recommendations, which include:

  • Batteries shall be charged in accordance with their manufacturer’s instructions using only original equipment and manufacturer-supplied equipment
  • Businesses: Lithium-Ion batteries need to be listed and inventoried, and only they are allowed to be charged
  • There need to be enough electric receptacles to allow for charging. No extension cords allowed
  • No storage of combustible materials near the charging area
  • No charging in an enclosed cabinet
  • 18-inch space between each battery during charging
  • The indoor room needs a fire alarm or a sprinkler
  • Businesses need to file a fire safety plan, which includes how the business would respond if a fire broke out, including evacuations

International guidelines would be officially updated next year.

It is then the Florida legislature could take those recommendations and update the state fire code.

“We are trying to possibly look at making some rule changes that will give some local authorities some ability to make some changes because we want to be able to look at emerging technologies and identify what’s right -- not be intrusive -- but what’s right to keep our communities safe and our firefighters safe,” Rice said.

Creating new rules

Some businesses have taken on the responsibility of keeping people safe.

“We mostly keep the bikes charged over here,” Josh Eaton said.

Eaton is the general manager of Wheel Works E-Bikes in Winter Garden.

“Batteries can overheat, depending on whether or not they’re great bikes versus high-end bikes,” he said. “You have some of these bikes that are just thrown together, like you get from (online) and stuff like that, that aren’t necessarily expensive bikes because they just use lesser parts. Those parts, sometimes, are not the best or safest parts.”

He told News 6 they have developed their own set of rules for safely storing their batteries.

Signs remind workers to unplug the bikes each night, and they have an emergency kit designed to be used in case there is a fire.

“It should concern everybody because it’s batteries, and if you don’t take them seriously – and some of these batteries are very large – it doesn’t take much to overheat something,” Eaton said.

Wheel Works E-Bike Shop is located on Plant Street in Winter Garden. (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

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About the Authors:

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013 and became an Investigator in 2020. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.