Lithium Batteries Drive Fire Death Toll to 106 Across City in ‘23, Highest in 20 years

Exploding lithium batteries in 2023 accounted for eight deaths in Manhattan and 18 across the city. That pushed the city to a grim mark as fire deaths surged past the 100 fatality mark for the first time in 20 years.

| 30 Jan 2024 | 02:01

Raging fires from defective lithium batteries caused 18 deaths across the city in 2023, including eight in Manhattan alone. That pushed the total number of fire deaths across the city last year to 106 victims, marking the first time in 20 years that the city surpassed the grim 100 death barrier.

In 2022 there were 97 fire related deaths across the five boroughs, The last time the fire fatality death toll exceeded 100 was in 2004 when there were also 106 fire deaths.

Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh has called the rise in fires from defective lithium batteries a “crisis” and is urging tougher national standards to go with those being pushed on the state and local level.

”FDNY has always led the charge so for us, leading the charge isn’t new,” Kavanagh has stated. “But I do think it is really important to get across that this isn’t just a New York City problem,” Kavanagh has said. “Almost every single city we have spoken to is having this issue or has had it in the past.

”And it’s important to note that it’s not just these e-bikes,” Kavanagh said. “So even in a city like say L.A. that doesn’t have a lot of e-bikes, anything that is made with these lithium ion batteries in the future as we move toward an electrified future could have these issues.”

Eric Adams also addressed the matter in a recent op-ed circulated to community newspapers. “While New Yorkers welcome the future of transit, we cannot have mopeds speeding down our sidewalks or dangerous lithium-ion batteries burning down our buildings.” In addition to the 18 fatalities, there were over 220 fires across the five boroughs blamed on exploding lithium ion batteries. There is virtually no warning in a lithium ion battery fire via smoldering or smoke. They tend to explode into an immediate fireball that can quickly engulf an entire room in flames.

As recently as 2017, before the rise of the lithium-ion powered vehicles, fire fatalities from all causes had sunk to a record low of 47 deaths in New York City.

The fire death toll is now 60 percent higher than it was in the pre-COVID toll in 2019, when 66 died in fires. That was before e-bike became a primary source of making deliveries across the city, and the resulting fires from charging defective lithium batteries.

The head of the fire fighters union, Andrew Ansbro has said staffing levels need to be increased for the FDNY to account for the growing danger. “Can you imagine the outcry if the murder rate was up 60 percent?” he asked.

There are currently 8,145 uniformed firefighters on the job. Ansbro said the budgeted headcount is 8,465 but resignations, retirements and promotions have left the department more than 320 firefighters short of the budgeted total.

Some of that shortfall may be made up when the current class of about 300 probationary firefighters graduates from the Fire Academy on Randalls island in March.

But there is still likely to be a shortfall. “The current class of probies would not bring us to headcount,” said FDNY spokesperson Jim Long. “Factoring in retirements, promotions, we will still be under head count.”

Adams recently added back about 20 positions at engine companies including at fire houses in the East Village, mid-town East and in Harlem as he rolled back selective budget cuts at NYPD, FDNY and Parks and Sanitation.

Ansbro points out that at one time all engine companies in the city had five men assigned to it. Budget cuts over the years began whittling down the number. At one point, during the administration of Mike Bloomberg, the fifth firefighter was bumped from all engine companies. Twenty engine companies were allowed to have a fifth man during the Bill DeBlasio years.

The engines each carry 500 gallons of water and its firefighters serve as the point people who are the first to enter burning buildings. “When firefighters are safer, people are safer,” said Ansbro.

”Eighteen of the fire related death in NYC last year were from e-bike fires,” said Ansbro. “The city needs to restore staffing to five firefighters in more engine companies. Twenty out of 193 isn’t enough.”

“The current class of probies would not bring us to headcount. Factoring in retirements, promotions, we will still be under head count.” FDNY spokesman Jim Long