How can local governments manage the growing risk of their assets being exposed to a lithium-ion battery fire?

Risk Matters - Autumn 2024

Picture of Udam Wickremaratne

Udam Wickremaratne

Portfolio Manager - Liability and Property
Udam has nearly 20 years’ experience in insurance and risk management. Since joining LGIS, he has worked with WA local governments specialising in risk management and has served as account manager to a number of Scheme members. Udam now manages the Property and Liability portfolios of your Scheme. In this role, Udam is responsible for coverage, claims strategy, pricing and (re)insurance purchased by the Scheme to protect members.

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Members have been asking ‘How do we manage the use and charging of e-scooter and bikes (micro-mobility)?’. Charging stations and facilities have already been made available by some members while others are considering the potential benefits.

Micro-mobility options are powered by lithium-ion batteries which pose a serious safety risk for people and property alike if not stored, maintained, and recycled/disposed of properly.

In March this year, Australia recorded the first fatality from a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery house fire; and by April 2024 there had been 1,000 lithium-ion battery fires nationally in the past 15 months. As the pace of e-mobility devices speeds up so does the risk of associated fires, so it’ vital that asset managers act now to reduce the hazard. From a WA perspective the Department of Fire and Emergency Services reported a doubling of lithium-ion battery fires in 2023.

A glimpse of the future can be seen in the UK which is far ahead of WA and Australia with e-mobility usage. In 2023, the London Fire Brigade attended an Li-ion fire incident every two days (on average). From 2020 to 2023 e-mobility usage exploded in the UK leading to a corresponding 300% increase in fires from the same devices.

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Managing the risks – a practical approach

LGIS recommends that all members read the London Fire Brigade’s ‘Safety Guidance Note GN103: charging and storage for electric power personal vehicles. It covers premises management, safe charging, and storage. This advice should be considered in addition to the guide LGIS previously provided to members on the risks of EV charging stations and location selection.

Members should educate their staff, visitors, and users of their premises about the risks involved to promote responsible use.

Safe charging and storage recommendations

  • Locate storage and charging facilities so that a fire cannot obstruct escape from the building.
  • Ensure ground-level entry is available, so firefighters can get direct access from the fire engine parking location, and provide premises information and signage.
  • Basement charging and storage may need upgraded smoke control and sprinkler systems.
  • Install an automatically openable vent linked to the fire detector and water-based fire suppression if not already in place.
  • Ensure a means of raising the fire alarm is in place along with smoke detectors.
  • Ensure external isolation of electrical power for the storage/ charging room is provided and clearly signposted.
  • Consider the implications of possible high-temperature fires on the building structure.
  • Consider how water run-off and contaminated water will be handled as fighting Li-ion fires often involves considerable amounts of water.
  • Consider additional issues including the location of gas intake pipes.

Managing premises

  • Consider policies restricting e-cycle and e-scooter battery charging on the premises, but not restricting access or storage. This may be a particularly appropriate approach where these devices are less likely to be parked overnight and are more likely to be stored in a lower-risk parking facility during working hours if employees are using them for commuting purposes.
  • General policies restricting the storage of e-cycles, e-scooters and similar items in common areas, stairwells and other fire escape routes should be fully implemented and monitored.
  • If secure and safe cycle storage and charging provisions exist, users should be strongly encouraged to leave batteries in place on e-cycles and charge them there, rather than removing the battery and charging at their desks or common areas.
  • If there is shared access to the storage and charging area, staff/ visitors may be concerned about theft of batteries and/ or chargers, even if the cycle itself can be securely locked. This might lead them to remove batteries and charge them elsewhere. One solution to address this would be to provide secure battery charging lockers in or near the storage area (with a mains socket in each locker). Any such lockers should be specifically designed for e-cycle/e-scooter battery charging, be clearly labelled and installation should ideally include automatic ventilation to the outside.
  • It should be made clear that damaged lithium batteries are a particularly high fire risk and should not be brought onto the premises.
  • In most cases, e-cycles have more than adequate range for commuting journeys without requiring regular charging at the workplace.

Recycling and disposal of lithium-ion batteries

  • The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) estimates that Australian households will have an average 33 items with lithium-ion batteries by 2026. Batteries disposed of in kerbside bins can cause fires in collection trucks, at recycling facilities or in landfill. According to the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR), at least three Li-ion fires in recycling streams every day, but the real number of blazes is suspected to be much higher.
  • LGIS claims are full of examples of damage caused to waste trucks and near-misses arising from emergency load disposal, known in the industry as ‘hot loads’. Members should fit automatic fire suppression in vehicles and build emergency response guides for all operators.
  • In 2022, a recycling facility in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) was destroyed with an estimated $20M worth of damage, which may not include the additional costs of alternative processing or landfill gate fees. Members need to focus on physical premises controls; developing a standard for handling, including appropriate collection stations.
  • Through the national Battery Product Stewardship Scheme (B-cycle) there are increased options for the community to recycle batteries, such as at Coles, Woolworths, Aldi, Bunnings and OfficeWorks. These collection points, in addition to local government collection sites, aim to minimise collection risk.
  • The coming electronic waste (e-waste) landfill ban may increase public awareness of correct battery disposal; not in kerbside bins. Collection facilities for e-waste or batteries should consider the storage and placement of them within their landfill/transfer station. The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) license should also be reviewed to make sure batteries are included. In the same way that highly flammable items are carefully managed, members need to consider the real risk of spontaneous combustion and spread of fire.
  • Even a small Li-ion fire can engulf an entire room in two to three minutes. These fires tend to escalate quickly and are very difficult to extinguish; they present a high risk of property damage or injuries – consider this risk in a landfill setting with combustibles and nearby vegetation.

For more information on managing motor fleet risk contact the LGIS Risk Team.

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